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Med Hypotheses. 2005;65(5):972-82.

Drugs of anesthesia acting on central cholinergic system may cause post-operative cognitive dysfunction and delirium.

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Department of Neuroscience, Psychiatric and Anesthesiological Sciences, University of Messina, School of Medicine, Policlinico Universitario G. Martino, via C.Valeria, 98125 Messina, Italy.


Given the progressive and constant increase of average life expectancy, an increasing number of elderly patients undergo surgery. After surgery, elderly patients often exhibit a transient reversible state of cerebral cognitive alterations. Among these cognitive dysfunctions, a state of delirium may develop. Delirium is an aetiologically non-specific syndrome characterised by concurrent disturbances of consciousness and attention, perception, thinking, memory, psychomotor behaviour and the sleep-wake cycle. Delirium appears to occur in 10-26% of general medical patients over 65, and is frequently associated with a significant increase in morbidity and mortality. During hospitalization, mortality rates have been estimated to be 10-26% of patients who developed post-operative delirium, and 22-76% during the following months. Over the last few decades, post-operative delirium has been associated with several pre-operative predictor factors, as well as age (50 years and older), alcohol abuse, poor cognitive and functional status, electrolyses or glucose abnormalities, and type of surgery. The uncertain pathogenesis of post-operative cognitive dysfunctions and delirium has not permitted a causal approach to developing an effective treatment. General anesthesia affects brain function at all levels, including neuronal membranes, receptors, ion channels, neurotransmitters, cerebral blood flow and metabolism. The functional equivalents of these impairments involve mood, memory, and motor function behavioural changes. These dysfunctions are much more evident in the occurrence of stress-regulating transmission and in the alteration of intra-cellular signal transduction systems. In addition, more essential cellular processes, that play an important role in neurotransmitter synthesis and release, such as intra-neuronal signal transduction and second messenger system, may be altered. Keeping in mind the functions of the central muscarinic cholinergic system and its multiple interactions with drugs of anesthesia, it seems possible to hypothesize that the inhibition of muscarinic cholinergic receptors could have a pivotal role in the pathogenesis not only of post-operative delirium but also the more complex phenomena of post-operative cognitive dysfunction.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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