The risks of surgery and anesthesia rise with age – in particular the risks to the brain. As Dalhousie/Capital Health anesthesiologist and professor Dr. Michael Schmidt explains, this is because brain cells gradually die as we age, leaving older people with fewer brain cells in reserve. This puts these patients at a higher risk of cognitive declines after surgery, because compounds produced in the anesthesia process have toxic effects on brain cells.

“We have to remove the patient’s exhaled carbon dioxide from the air they’re breathing, or they will suffocate,” says Dr. Schmidt, who is affiliated with the Brain Repair Centre. “Current agents used to absorb the carbon dioxide react with the anesthesia medications and produce neurotoxic compounds. This is not such a problem for younger people, who have billions of neurons available to fill in, but can lead to life-altering loss of cognitive function for older people.”

Dr. Schmidt is determined to reduce the cognitive risk of anesthesia – and he and his research collaborators are well on the way. He and biomedical engineering PhD student Florentin Wilfart have invented a new scrubbing agent which removes carbon dioxide without producing any toxic compounds. He has also launched a spin-off company, DMF Medical Inc., and enlisted the business acumen of Dr. David Roach from Dalhousie’s school of business administration to help the company develop a solid business plan and marketing strategy.

“It was my vision, when I came to Halifax from Germany in 2007, to create a triangle between the Department of Anesthesia, the School of Biomedical Engineering and the School of Business Administration,” says Dr. Schmidt. “This way we can pool our expertise to create workable solutions to real clinical problems and then get those solutions out and into use around the world.”

In addition to the new scrubbing agent, Dr. Schmidt and Mr. Wilfart are investigating several approaches to protecting the organs, including brain and spinal cord, during anesthesia. One of these strategies involves noble gases that may actually protect brain cells when used as an anesthetic. As Dr. Schmidt says, “Our focus is on new agents, new procedures and new devices to make anesthesia as safe as possible for patients of all ages.”  

Photo and text courtesy of Capital Health Research Services


Stay tuned for more stories featuring the important work of our Brain Repair Centre researchers.






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