An Investigation of Learning during Propofol Sedation and Anesthesia Using the Process Dissociation Procedure

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Many studies have shown that patients may remember words learned during apparently adequate anesthesia. Performance on memory tests may be influenced by explicit and implicit memory. We used the process dissociation procedure to estimate implicit and explicit memory for words presented during sedation or anesthesia.


We investigated intraoperative learning in 72 women undergoing pervaginal oocyte collection during propofol and alfentanil infusion. One word list was played once before infusion, another was played 10 times during surgery. Venous blood was taken for propofol assay at the end of the intraoperative list. Behavioral measures of anesthetic depth (eyelash reflex, hand squeeze response to command) were recorded and used to adjust the dose of anesthetic where clinically appropriate. On recovery, memory was assessed using an auditory word stem completion test with inclusion and exclusion instructions.


The mean blood propofol concentration was 2.5 μg/ml (median, 2.3 μg/ml; range, 0.7–6.1 μg/ml). Mean alfentanil dose was 2.1 mg (median, 2.0 mg; range, 1.2–3.4 mg). Comparison of target and distractor hits in the inclusion condition showed memory for preoperative words only. However, the process dissociation procedure estimates showed explicit (mean, 0.18;P < 0.001) and implicit (mean, 0.05;P < 0.05) memory for the preoperative words, and a small amount of explicit memory for the intraoperative words (mean, 0.06; 95% confidence interval, 0.01–0.10). Memory performance did not differ between the 17 patients who consistently responded to command and eyelash reflex and the 32 patients who remained unresponsive. Blood propofol concentration and alfentanil dose did not correlate with memory for the intraoperative list.


There was no unprompted recall of surgery, but the process dissociation procedure showed memory for words presented during surgery. This memory was apparently explicit but did not correlate with the measures of depth of anesthesia used.

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