Ischaemic/hypoxic insults to the brain during surgery and anaesthesia can result in long-term disability or death. Advances in resuscitation science encourage progress in clinical management of these problems. However, current practice remains largely founded on extrapolation from animal studies and limited clinical investigation. A major step was made with demonstration that rapid induction of mild sustained hypothermia in comatose survivors of out-of-hospital ventricular fibrillation cardiac arrest reduces death and neurological morbidity with negligible adverse events. This provides the first irrefutable evidence that outcome can be favourably altered in humans with widely applicable neuroprotection protocols. How far hypothermic protection can be extended to global ischaemia of other aetiologies remains to be determined. All available evidence suggests an adverse response to hyperthermia in ischaemic or post-ischaemic brain. Management of other physiological values can have dramatic effects in experimental injury models and this is largely supported by available clinical data. Hyperoxaemia may be beneficial in transient focal ischaemia but deleterious in global ischaemia. Hyperglycaemia causes exacerbation of most forms of cerebral ischaemia and this can be abated by restoration of normoglycaemia. Studies indicate little, if any, role for hyperventilation. There is little evidence in humans that pharmacological intervention is advantageous. Anaesthetics consistently and meaningfully improve outcome from experimental cerebral ischaemia, but only if present during the ischaemic insult. Emerging experimental data portend clinical breakthroughs in neuroprotection. In the interim, organized large-scale clinical trials could serve to better define limitations and efficacy of already available methods of intervention, aimed primarily at regulation of physiological homeostasis.
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