Anesthesia activates unique populations of neurons throughout the brains of mice

The brain undergoes rapid, dramatic, and reversible transitioning between states of wakefulness and unconsciousness during natural sleep and in pathological conditions such as hypoxia, hypotension, and concussion. Transitioning can also be induced pharmacologically using general anesthetic agents. The effect is selective. Mobility, sensory perception, memory formation, and awareness are lost while numerous housekeeping functions persist. How is selective transitioning accomplished? Classically a handful of brainstem and diencephalic “arousal nuclei” have been implicated in driving brain-state transitions on the grounds that their net activity systematically varies with brain state. Here we used transgenic targeted recombination in active populations mice to label neurons active during wakefulness with one reporter and neurons active during pentobarbital-induced general anesthesia with a second, contrasting reporter. We found ‘wake-on’ and ‘anesthesia-on’ neurons in widely distributed regions-of-interest, but rarely encountered neurons labeled with both reporters. Nearly all labeled neurons were either wake-on or anesthesia-on. Thus, anesthesia-on neurons are not unique to the few nuclei discovered to date whose activity appears to increase during anesthesia. Rather neuronal populations selectively active during anesthesia are located throughout the brain where they likely play a causative role in transitioning between wakefulness and anesthesia. The widespread neuronal suppression reported in prior comparisons of the awake and anesthetized brain in animal models and noninvasive imaging in humans reflects only net differences. It misses the ubiquitous presence of neurons whose activity increases during anesthesia. The balance in recruitment of anesthesia-on versus wake-on neuronal populations throughout the brain may be a key driver of regional and global vigilance states.