Department of
Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine

Research by Drs. Yan Xu and Pei Tang on Anesthesia Percolation Model Featured in the News

The article “Percolation Model of Sensory Transmission and Loss of Consciousness Under General Anesthesia” by the research team of Yan Xu, PhD and Pei Tang, PhD (Zhou DW, Mowrey DD, Tang P, Xu Y) was published in the September issue of the journal Physical Review Letters (2015; 115(10): 108103).

The study theorizes that the process of consciousness and loss of consciousness under anesthesia can be likened to the flow of water through coffee grounds. When coffee is brewed, each drop of water finds a random path, slowly percolating until it reaches the mug. Similarly, each bit of sensory information flows through a network of brain cells, finding connections among them. Remarkably, while the process appears chaotic, a single variable, which decides if a connection is “on” or “off,” can manipulate the network to replicate many of the changes appearing in brain waves when the mind is switched off by, for example, general anesthesia during surgery. A model as simple as making drip coffee might advance an interesting new frontier of physics, allowing us to understand the fundamental rules governing how the brain works.

The research was the topic of a feature news article on Physics, a daily news website about papers selected from the APS journal collection for being technically sound, novel, and of broad interest to the public. Philip Ball, a high-profile writer and an editor of Nature for over 20 years, wrote the focus article.

It was also featured in an article on www.physicsworld.com, “Do general anaesthetics trigger a phase transition in the brain?” by renowned science journalist Edwin Cartlidge, who writes news for Science and several other scientific magazines.

News about the study by Dr. Xu and Tang’s research team has been steadily gaining attention in the scientific community, and has been the topic of several additional news articles:

The article “Percolating Brains” in the fall 2015 issue of Pitt Med also featured the percolation model research.