Understanding how the brain recovers from unconsciousness can inform neurobiological theories of consciousness and guide clinical investigation. To address this question, we conducted a multicenter study of 60 healthy humans, half of whom received general anesthesia for 3 hr and half of whom served as awake controls. We administered a battery of neurocognitive tests and recorded electroencephalography to assess cortical dynamics. We hypothesized that recovery of consciousness and cognition is an extended process, with differential recovery of cognitive functions that would commence with return of responsiveness and end with return of executive function, mediated by prefrontal cortex. We found that, just prior to the recovery of consciousness, frontal-parietal dynamics returned to baseline. Consistent with our hypothesis, cognitive reconstitution after anesthesia evolved over time. Contrary to our hypothesis, executive function returned first. Early engagement of prefrontal cortex in recovery of consciousness and cognition is consistent with global neuronal workspace theory.

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