In designing the anaesthetic plan for patients undergoing surgery, the choice of anaesthetic agent may often appear irrelevant and the best results obtained by the use of a technique or a drug with which the anaesthesia care provider is familiar. Nevertheless, in those surgical procedures (cardiopulmonary bypass, carotid surgery and cerebral aneurysm surgery) and clinical situations (subarachnoid haemorrhage, stroke, brain trauma and postcardiac arrest resuscitation) where protecting the CNS is a priority, the choice of anaesthetic drug assumes a fundamental role. Treating patients with a neuroprotective agent may be a consideration in improving overall neurological outcome. Therefore, a clear understanding of the relative degree of protection provided by various agents becomes essential in deciding on the most appropriate anaesthetic treatment geared to these objectives. This article surveys the current literature on the effects of the most commonly used anaesthetic drugs (volatile and gaseous inhalation, and intravenous agents) with regard to their role in neuroprotection. A systematic search was performed in the MEDLINE, Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINHAL) and Cochrane Library databases using the following keywords: ‘brain’ (with the limits ‘newborn’ or ‘infant’ or ‘child’ or ‘neonate’ or ‘neonatal’ or ‘animals’) AND ‘neurodegeneration’ or ‘apoptosis’ or ‘toxicity’ or ‘neuroprotection’ in combination with individual drug names (‘halothane’, ‘isoflurane’, ‘desflurane’, ‘sevoflurane’, ‘nitrous oxide’, ‘xenon’, ‘barbiturates’, ‘thiopental’, ‘propofol’, ‘ketamine’). Over 600 abstracts for articles published from January 1980 to April 2010, including studies in animals, humans and in vitro, were examined, but just over 100 of them were considered and reviewed for quality. Taken as a whole, the available data appear to indicate that anaesthetic drugs such as barbiturates, propofol, xenon and most volatile anaesthetics (halothane, isoflurane, desflurane, sevoflurane) show neuroprotective effects that protect cerebral tissue from adverse events – such as apoptosis, degeneration, inflammation and energy failure – caused by chronic neurodegenerative diseases, ischaemia, stroke or nervous system trauma. Nevertheless, in several studies, the administration of gaseous, volatile and intravenous anaesthetics (especially isoflurane and ketamine) was also associated with dosedependent and exposure time-dependent neurodegenerative effects in the developing animal brain. At present, available experimental data do not Approval for publication Signed Date Number of amended pages returned LEADING ARTICLE CNS Drugs 2010; 24 (11): 1-15 1172-7047/10/0011-0001/$49.95/0 ª 2010 Adis Data Information BV. All rights reserved. AUTHOR PROOF support the selection of any one anaesthetic agent over the others. Furthermore, the relative benefit of one anaesthetic versus another, with regard to neuroprotective potential, is unlikely to form a rational basis for choice. Each drug has some undesirable adverse effects that, together with the patient’s medical and surgical history, appear to be decisive in choosing the most suitable anaesthetic agent for a specific situation. Moreover, it is important to highlight that many of the studies in the literature have been conducted in animals or in vitro; hence, results and conclusions of most of them may not be directly applied to the clinical setting. For these reasons, and given the serious implications for public health, we believe that further investigation – geared mainly to clarifying the complex interactions between anaesthetic drug actions and specific mechanisms involved in brain injury, within a setting as close as possible to the clinical situation – is imperative.
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