Anesth Analg. 2012 Aug 2. [Epub ahead of print]
Appropriate balance between excitatory and inhibitory neural activity patterns is of utmost importance in the maintenance of neuronal homeostasis. General anesthetic-induced pharmacological interference with this equilibrium results not only in a temporary loss of consciousness but can also initiate long-term changes in brain function. Although these alterations were initially considered deleterious, recent observations suggest that at least under some specific conditions, they may eventually improve neural function. The goal of this review is to provide insights into the mechanisms underlying these dual effects. Basic science issues on the important role of critical periods during neural circuitry assembly will be discussed to better understand how even brief exposures to general anesthetics could initiate context-dependent lasting changes in neuronal structure and function. Recent series of observations suggesting a developmental stage-dependent impact of these drugs on synaptogenesis will then be summarized together with currently known molecular mechanisms underlying these effects. Particular emphasis will be placed on how anesthetic drugs modulate neural plasticity in the adult brain and how this may improve neural function under some pathological states. The ensemble of these new observations strongly suggests that general anesthetics should not merely be considered toxic drugs but rather acknowledged as robust, context-dependent modulators of neural plasticity.