Jan 3, 2018: Does propofol have anticonvulsant properties?


Propofol is an intravenous short-acting hypnotic medication with FDA indications for the induction and maintenance of general anesthesia, monitored anesthesia care, ICU sedation for intubated adults, and procedural sedation. Most recently, propofol is being used off-label as an adjunct in the treatment of refractory status epilepticus. However, anticonvulsant doses are typically much higher than sedation requirements and are comparable to that for the induction/maintenance of general anesthesia.

Typical Propofol Maintenance Rates
ICU Sedation    5 to 50 mcg/kg/min
Monitored Anesthesia Care    25 to 75 mcg/kg/min
Procedural Sedation    500 mcg/kg every 3-5 minutes as needed
General Anesthesia    100 to 200 mcg/kg/min
Status Epilepticus    30 to 200 mcg/kg/min titrated to EEG

The anticonvulsant property of propofol is mainly due to its actions on GABA-A receptors. GABA is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter of the central nervous system. Activation of GABA-A receptors opens chloride channels and conducts chloride ions through its pore, increasing the amount of chloride ions on the inside of the neuron. This inhibits neurotransmission by preventing successful action potentials.

The effect of propofol on GABA-A receptors is dose-dependent. At approximately 0.5 µM, propofol increases the frequency that the chloride channel opens in response to activation by GABA. At 20-fold high concentrations, propofol directly activates GABA-A receptors, opening the chloride channel even in the absence of GABA. Compared with benzodiazepines and barbiturates, large doses of propofol have been found to have a more uniform depressant action on the central nervous system.

Other mechanisms of action include mixed agonist-antagonist actions on glycine, antagonism of NMDA receptors, and the modulation of calcium influx through slow calcium ion channels.

In the poisoned patient, the main concern with the use of propofol as a sedative is the presence of apparent seizure-like activity. Seizures are a common complication of numerous xenobiotics, as well as withdrawal syndrome, and typically manifest as grand mal-type seizures. Any seizure-like activity in the poisoned patient receiving propofol should prompt the healthcare provider to assume they are true convulsions (unless proven otherwise with an immediate EEG) and treat with benzodiazepines and concurrent investigation of indirect causes (i.e. metabolic disturbances, hypoxia, etc.).

The use of propofol as treatment of drug-induced seizures remains unclear as there are no randomized controlled trials or large case series describing its potential efficacy. Currently, propofol is considered as a second-line anticonvulsant (alternative to phenobarbital) for the treatment of drug-induced seizures, but only after sufficient and often very high-doses of benzodiazepines are trialed. When used as an anticonvulsant, the dose of propofol is typically much larger than that used for ICU sedation.

This question prepared by: Justin Loden, PharmD, CSPI (Certified Specialist in Poison Information)


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Donna Seger, MD
Medical Director
Tennessee Poison Center
Poison Help Hotline: 1-800-222-1222

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