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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

What Brewing Coffee Can Teach Us About Modeling Anesthesia

Michael Greshko, science writer based in Washington, DC. reports, "Mathematics that can describe coffeepots, forest fires and flu outbreaks may also underpin the brain’s response to anesthesia, a new study suggests."

Photo: Science 2.0

The mathematical model of the brain, published in Physical Review Letters, marks the latest attempt to simulate the surprisingly complicated effects of general anesthetics across the brain. Despite modern medicine’s 160-year use of ether, laughing gas and propofol in surgery, researchers still don’t know how exactly they tamp down the back-and-forth between the thalamus – the brain’s hub for sensory information – and the cortex, the wrinkly outer layer and seat of consciousness.

“It’s a medical wonder that we really don’t know the molecular mechanism,” said Yan Xu, the vice chairman for basic sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania, and the senior author of the study.

Researchers can track the amount of activity in the cortex by measuring brain waves, the rhythmic electrical crackles in the brain’s outermost nerve cells. A dose of anesthetics caused brain waves to predictably drop off, as activity unsurprisingly ebbs. But how do anesthetics — which act on individual nerves — slow down brain waves as a whole?

This isn’t an easy question. It’s a bit like asking how millions of leaderless ants coalesce and build an anthill. So researchers tried mathematically modeling these patterns in an effort to understand what might be going on.  Xu, his student David Zhou and their collaborators started by building a mathematically generic “brain” with a branch of mathematics called percolation theory, which can be used to model everything from sponges’ porosity to flu outbreaks.
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The researchers' model. Layers of mathematically abstract "nerves" were linked together to mirror the structures of the thalamus and cortex. (Yan Xu and David Mowrey | American Physical Society) -

Source: Science 2.0