Sedation modulates recognition of novel stimuli and adaptation to regular stimuli in critically ill adults

James O. Clifford*, Timothy G. Buchman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Background: Responsiveness of critically ill patients is affected by disease and by therapy. Subjective tests of responsiveness (e.g., modified Ramsay score) reflect global integrity of a response arc that includes transduction, perception, classification, and an overt response. The performance of individual components is usually not assessed. Objective: To determine whether an association exists among sedative medications and the brain's component information processing and adaptive abilities. Design: Initial observational study of a convenience sample. Setting: A surgical intensive care unit of a university hospital. Patients: A total of 22 endotracheally intubated, mechanically ventilated patients chemically sedated with narcotics and a benzodiazepine (n = 12), or narcotics and propofol (n = 10) using sedation protocols. Interventions: None. Measurements and Findings: Patients were presented flashes of light and pulses of sound at fixed or random intervals. Patients receiving low doses of fentanyl and propofol adapted to stimuli presented at fixed intervals and retained the response to novelty. Patients receiving higher doses of those medications did not respond to novelty and responded to stimuli presented at fixed intervals as if they were novel. Patients receiving fentanyl and benzodiazepines had generally weaker responses to all stimuli. Moreover, their responses to fixed and random stimuli were similar. At low doses, the patients retained responses to novelty and adapted to fixed, whereas at higher doses the opposite was observed: the response to novelty was lost and the patients responded to fixed stimuli as if they were novel. These observations suggest that the sedative medications generally accelerate the physiologic decay of stimuli as they engage the brain's information processing and adaptive abilities and further suggest that different sedative medications may have different effects on the brain. Conclusions: Commonly administered sedative medications may alter the brain's biophysical state and thereby modulate specific aspects of the brain's information processing and adaptive functions. These functions can be interrogated even when the patient is seemingly unresponsive. If this observation is confirmed in subsequent prospective controlled randomized trials, electrophysiologic interrogation of the brain's information processing and adaptive capacities could serve as an adjunct to clinical assessment of responsiveness and management of sedative medications.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)609-616
Number of pages8
JournalCritical Care Medicine
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2002


  • Auditory evoked potentials
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Neurophysiology
  • Propofol
  • Sedation
  • Visual evoked potentials


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