Study reveals fentanyl's effects on the brain

Findings could make its use safer during and after surgery. Results also explain why the drug is so deadly when used illicitly
Study reveals fentanyl's effects on the brain  (CDC PHIL)
Study reveals fentanyl's effects on the brain (CDC PHIL)

Key Takeaways

  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) tests revealed fentanyl’s effects on the brain and indicated that the drug stops people’s breathing before other noticeable changes and before they lose consciousness. This explains why fentanyl has been so deadly during the opioid epidemic.

  • Fentanyl produces a specific EEG signature, which could allow clinicians to monitor its effects to enable safer, more personalized administration during and after surgery.

Fentanyl produces a specific EEG signature, which could allow clinicians to monitor its effects to enable safer, more personalized administration during and after surgery.   (CDC PHIL)
Fentanyl produces a specific EEG signature, which could allow clinicians to monitor its effects to enable safer, more personalized administration during and after surgery. (CDC PHIL)

Fentanyl is used to supplement sedation and to relieve severe pain during and after surgery, but it’s also one of the deadliest drugs of the opioid epidemic. In research conducted by investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and published in PNAS Nexus, tests of the brain’s electrical activity revealed fentanyl’s effects over time and indicated that the drug stops people’s breathing before other noticeable changes and before they lose consciousness.

Study reveals fentanyl's effects on the brain  (CDC PHIL)
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In the study, electroencephalogram (EEG) tests were run for 25 patients undergoing general anesthesia for surgeries lasting 2 hours or more. The researchers discovered that certain EEG patterns were associated with respiration, sedation, and loss of consciousness.

“We found that fentanyl produces a specific EEG signature distinct from other anesthetic drugs, which could make it possible to monitor its effects to enable safer, more precise, and personalized opioid administration,” says senior author Patrick L. Purdon, PhD, the Nathaniel M. Sims Endowed Chair in Anesthesia Innovation and Bioengineering at MGH. “For example, think of patients with COVID-19 who are sedated in the ICU or patients undergoing surgery—currently there is no way to know if opioids are working in these unconscious patients.”

The EEG tests by Purdon and his colleagues also revealed that fentanyl begins to impair breathing about 4 minutes before there is any change in alertness and at 1,700-times lower drug concentrations than those that cause sedation. “This explains why fentanyl is so deadly: it stops people’s breathing before they even realize it,” says Purdon.

Study reveals fentanyl's effects on the brain  (CDC PHIL)
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The findings make it clear that no amount of fentanyl would be safe outside of a clinical setting with trained specialists. As fentanyl exposure is likely to remain a persistent risk during illicit use, the rapid respiratory depression the researchers observed supports the need for increased availability of medical observation or supervision units, naloxone, and other tools to reduce the risk of death among individuals with substance use disorder.

Study reveals fentanyl's effects on the brain  (CDC PHIL)
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Additional co-authors include Gustavo A. Balanza, Kishore M. Bharadwaj, Andrew C. Mullen, Amanda M. Beck, Erin C. Work, Francis J. McGovern, Timothy T. Houle, and Eric, T. Pierce.

This work is supported by funds from the National Institutes of Health through a National Institute on Drug Abuse grant.

The EEG tests by Purdon and his colleagues also revealed that fentanyl begins to impair breathing about 4 minutes before there is any change in alertness and at 1,700-times lower drug concentrations than those that cause sedation.   (Unsplash)
The EEG tests by Purdon and his colleagues also revealed that fentanyl begins to impair breathing about 4 minutes before there is any change in alertness and at 1,700-times lower drug concentrations than those that cause sedation. (Unsplash)

About the Massachusetts General Hospital

Massachusetts General Hospital, founded in 1811, is the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The Mass General Research Institute conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the nation, with annual research operations of more than $1 billion and comprises more than 9,500 researchers working across more than 30 institutes, centers and departments. In August 2021, Mass General was named #5 in the U.S. News & World Report list of "America’s Best Hospitals." MGH is a founding member of the Mass General Brigham healthcare system. (SP/Newswise)

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