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Decoding The Void

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In the days before anesthesia, surgery was about the worst ordeal you could endure. Patrick Purdon, Assistant Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, gives producer Tim Howard a tour of Mass General Hospital’s famous Ether Dome, an operating theater that would have resonated with the screams of patients on a daily basis in the early 1800s. Writer Julie Fenster introduces us to a con artist-turned-dentist named William Morton, the man who would become famous in 1846 (if undeservedly, as contemporaries would claim) for the discovery of painless surgery.

With the discovery of anesthesia, however, came a strange new problem: nobody was quite sure what was happening when the brain slipped from consciousness into this new, drugged state. We meet Carl Zimmer, whose own experience with anesthesia leads him to wonder how it’s possible that time seems to simply disappear when you go under. What happens in that invisible moment? And why is it that some patients remain conscious, even when they appear to be knocked out?

Patrick Purdon tries to answer this question in an experiment that takes the induction of anesthesia and slows it down to a crawl while analyzing the brain’s electrical activity. With the help of his colleague Emery Brown, Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, Patrick explains the strange electrical signature they discovered, and why it just may be that sought-after indicator of when a brain is truly, totally, definitely unconscious.

 

Guests:

Emery Brown, Julie Fenster, Patrick Purdon and Carl Zimmer

Produced by:

Tim Howard

Comments [6]

vera

where do you find the music that was in the beginning, is there a credit area? when she is singing "I am sleepy".... I loved that!

Mar. 23 2014 07:08 PM
Blake from Rochester, Minnesota

Local anesthetics are much better understood. Most function by blocking the signals from your nerve endings to your brain. Your brain still functions, but it cannot receive the input from the senses that have been blocked (pain). This is typically done (in drugs that end in "caine" like lidocaine or bupivacaine) by blocking sodium channels from inside the cell. These channels are responsible for continuing the signal down axons (they are kinda like the wires of your body).

Feb. 27 2014 04:55 PM
Caitlin B

This is fascinating stuff, I'd be curious to know the name and journal of the paper I assume Purdon and Brown published so I could learn more!

Feb. 25 2014 05:50 PM
Chris P. from Chico, CA

After listening to this episode (yet another fascinating topic!), and the description of what happens in the brain during unconsciousness, I found myself wondering about local anesthetics. They must work in a completely different way, since they only affect an area of nerve endings. Is that process any better understood?

Feb. 04 2014 01:57 AM
Adam from Boston, MA

I'd just like to point out that the man contemporaries credit for inventing anesthesia, is Dr. Crawfrod Long who first used it in 1842.

Jan. 24 2014 02:35 PM
Garrek from Osaka, Japan

This was a really cool episode. It would be cool if you guys followed up on more consciousness research in future episodes!

Jan. 24 2014 01:54 AM

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