Plants May Be a Game-Changer When It Comes to Our Understanding of Human Anesthesia

If you’ve ever undergone surgery, you may have been placed under anesthesia. An anesthesiologist inserts an IV in your arm or you breathe gas through a mask. As a result, patients are able to sleep peacefully and avoid pain and stress during a surgical procedure.

But that’s not the case for everyone.

Anesthesia awareness is a rare condition where surgical patients can recall their surroundings or pain while under anesthesia. It’s an occurrence that has been shrouded in mystery. Donna Penner is one person who experienced this nightmare during her surgery. Ten minutes into the procedure, she felt scrubbing sensations on her back. She describes it as an out-of-body experience. The anesthesia also prevented her from talking, so she could not even tell the doctors about the pain she felt. Although cases like Donna’s are extremely rare, approximately 5 percent of patients may still wake up on the operating table.

To help prevent occurrences like this, scientists are trying to learn more about how anesthetic drugs work. In fact, plants have unintentionally been used as a source for surgical anesthesia rooting back to a couple hundred years ago through ethylene: a plant compound with anesthetic properties. At the time, doctors believed ethylene inhibited synaptic neurotransmission and therefore blocked pain signals. Recently, researchers have identified other plants, specifically the Venus flytrap and Mimosa pudica, which mimic the human response to anesthesia. Similar to how anesthesia can suppress human consciousness in seconds, plant awareness of environment (plant sentience) significantly decreases when exposed to human anesthetics. Plant sentience is measured by examining its natural and touch-induced movements. In light of this finding, scientists now believe plants could be used to reveal the mysterious mechanisms behind anesthesia.

Even after years of testing human anesthesia on animals, “there is a very limited understanding of human consciousness and sentience,” says professor Frantisek Baluska, Ph.D., a plant biologist at the University of Bonn. However, the discovery of plants’ response to anesthetics could provide enormous benefits for the medical field.

“If plants will allow us to identify and characterize the true biological structures and processes that represent the primary targets of the anesthetics, then this will have profound impacts on medicine and pain management.”

Dr. Frantisek Baluska, Ph.D.

He describes that, as endogenous anesthetics in plants are produced after wounding and heavy stress, it can be expected that they allow plant recovery by some elusive process. Such plant stress recovery is important because there are many stressors to plants such as the loss of nutrients, herbivory and the entry of microbes. Therefore, plants have evolved to produce endogenous anesthetics for themselves to effectively heal their wounded tissues. Animals have mobilized immune cells for defense but plants do not. To compensate, plants activate protective mechanisms in response to an injury.

Although plants respond similarly in the presence of anesthetics, they process them much differently. Many scientists believe anesthesia works in humans and animals by activating specific receptors to produce an effect. Plants use their plant-specific action potentials and other electrical signals for their environmental responsiveness. These plant-specific action potentials are influenced by anesthesia through inhibition of various parts of the plants via electrical signals. This helps scientists broaden the scope of improving anesthetics by allowing them to examine the molecular nature of anesthesia through more than one lens. The additional information allows them to further uncover the molecular impacts anesthetics produce in our human bodies.

One of the foundational ways to boost research findings includes exploring new methods. That’s why researchers are now slowly incorporating plants into their anesthetic studies to expand the range of their investigations. Using plants as a test system could provide new insights into plant science and potential implications in the human body. It’s quite fascinating how the plants at your local park, per se, may be a source for helping us learn more about us!

  • An increasing number of scientists are studying plants to learn more about how anesthetic drugs work.
  • Although plants respond similarly to the presence of anesthetics, they process them much differently.
  • These studies help scientists broaden the scope of improving anesthetics by allowing them to examine the molecular nature of anesthesia through more than one lens.

Editorial Team

  • Chief Editor: Shivani Patel
  • Team Editor: Sydney Yan
  • Creative Team Manager: Maya Hofstetter
  • Social Media Team Manager: Karishma Goswami
  • Image Credits: Daniela Benoit


  • Niba Nirmal, M.Sc., Multimedia Content Creator, @NotesbyNiba

Content Expert

Frantisek Baluska, Ph.D., a plant biologist, is in the department of Plant Cell Biology at the University of Bonn Institute of Cellular and Molecular Biology. His expertise is plant signaling and behavior.

About the Author

Sneha Nadella

Sneha Nadella is a rising senior at Plano West Senior High School in Texas.