Brain and Body

Are You Really Under Anesthesia? This Device Makes Sure

October 15, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Doctors conducting surgery in the operating room
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Scientists have created the first-ever device that ensures you don’t go through the trauma of waking up mid-surgery.

We’ve all heard those nightmare stories of anesthesia gone wrong, causing patients to wake up mid-surgery but remain unable to move or make a sound. Even just the thought of going through something like that doesn’t sit well. But thankfully, Australian scientists have devised a solution to prevent the traumatic ordeal with a new brain monitoring device.

It’s the first-ever device that will monitor a patient’s brain activity during surgery, tipping doctors off when anesthesia is wearing off. Finally, anesthesiologists will be able to adjust the drug delivery when necessary, making sure a patient stays unconscious for a pain-free surgery experience.

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Currently, doctors can only tell when a patient’s physical body is under anesthesia, but the conscious mind is more of a mystery. Before this new brain monitoring device, doctors had no way of telling if a patient regained consciousness during surgery and was forced to watch their bodies undergo slices and stitching. Even if a patient can’t feel the excruciating pain that is numbed by anesthesia, the experience of waking up during surgery and becoming aware of what’s going on is traumatizing enough.

“I was awake but paralyzed,” Carolyn Weihrer told CNN in a recap of her nightmare anesthesia experience. “I could hear the surgeon telling his trainee to ‘cut deeper into the eye.’ I was screaming but no one could hear me. I felt no pain, just a tugging sensation. I tried to move my toes or even push myself off the operating table, but I couldn’t move. I thought I was dying.”

Reassuringly, the great majority of patients who undergo surgery don’t wake up until after it’s over. A study last year found that roughly one in 19,600 patients had gained consciousness during surgery. While the number is low, it doesn’t take away the trauma for those who are unlucky enough to experience it.

To solve the problem once and for all, scientists at the Swinburne University of Technology created the brain monitoring device called the Brain Anaesthesia Response (BAR). The device features three sensors that are placed on the forehead and behind the ear, and they record the brain’s electric activity throughout surgery.

"The BAR Monitor has the potential to reduce the risks associated with surgical procedures, increase levels of patient care, optimize the use of anaesthetic agents, lower costs through reduced drug usage and in turn create a faster bed turnaround in the theatre and post-operative recovery rooms," David Liley, a professor who worked on the medical device, said in a press release.

The device has already been tested on patients in Australia and received certification from the Therapeutic Goods Administration - the organization which regulates medicines and medical devices in Australia. It’s also being commercially developed, so hopefully other countries will follow in Australia’s footsteps and stock their operating rooms with the BAR Monitor. With existing technology to prevent those traumatic anesthesia experiences, there’s no longer an excuse to risk it.

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