Depicting one of the first operations using anaesthetics, this photograph represents a medical revolution. Since the pioneering use of ether to provide pain relief in the 1840s, anaesthetics have become an essential and sophisticated component of a surgeon’s toolkit. They block pain by obstructing communication between neurons at synapses, although how exactly they operate is a complicated question. Part of the answer is that anaesthetic drugs clog the receptors for GABA neurotransmitters, key signalling molecules in the nervous system. Known as a post-synaptic mechanism, this prevents downstream neurons from receiving signals. Yet recent research uncovered evidence that anaesthetics may also act pre-synaptically, hindering the release of neurotransmitters in the first place. Propofol, the most commonly-used modern anaesthetic, appears to interfere with a SNARE protein, an essential component of the machinery for neurotransmitter delivery. This suggests a dual action for anaesthetics, affecting both sender and receiver neurons to thwart signal transmission.
Written by Emmanuelle Briolat
BPoD stands for Biomedical Picture of the Day. Managed by the MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences the website aims to engage everyone, young and old, in the wonders of biomedicine. Images are kindly provided for inclusion on this website through the generosity of scientists across the globe.