Nitrous oxide produces non–γ-aminobutyric acid sedation and psychometric impairment and can be used as scientific model for understanding mechanisms of progressive cognitive disturbances. Temporal complexity of the electroencephalogram may be a sensitive indicator of these effects. This study measured psychometric performance and the temporal complexity of the electroencephalogram in participants breathing low-dose nitrous oxide.


In random order, 20, 30, and 40% end-tidal nitrous oxide was administered to 12 participants while recording 32-channel electroencephalogram and psychometric function. A novel metric quantifying the spatial distribution of temporal electroencephalogram complexity, comprised of (1) absolute cross-correlation calculated between consecutive 0.25-s time samples; 2) binarizing these cross-correlation matrices using the median of all channels as threshold; (3) using quantitative recurrence analysis, the complexity in temporal changes calculated by the Shannon entropy of the probability distribution of the diagonal line lengths; and (4) overall spatial extent and intensity of brain complexity, was quantified by calculating median temporal complexity of channels whose complexities were above 1 at baseline. This region approximately overlay the brain’s default mode network, so this summary statistic was termed “default-mode-network complexity.”


Nitrous oxide concentration correlated with psychometric impairment (r = 0.50, P < 0.001). Baseline regional electroencephalogram complexity at midline was greater than in lateral temporal channels (1.33 ± 0.14 bits vs. 0.81 ± 0.12 bits, P < 0.001). A dose of 40% N2O decreased midline (mean difference [95% CI], 0.20 bits [0.09 to 0.31], P = 0.002) and prefrontal electroencephalogram complexity (mean difference [95% CI], 0.17 bits [0.08 to 0.27], P = 0.002). The lateral temporal region did not change significantly (mean difference [95% CI], 0.14 bits [−0.03 to 0.30], P = 0.100). Default-mode-network complexity correlated with N2O concentration (r = −0.55, P < 0.001). A default-mode-network complexity mixed-effects model correlated with psychometric impairment (r2 = 0.67; receiver operating characteristic area [95% CI], 0.72 [0.59 to 0.85], P < 0.001).


Temporal complexity decreased most markedly in medial cortical regions during low-dose nitrous oxide exposures, and this change tracked psychometric impairment.

Editor’s Perspective
What We Already Know about This Topic
  • Low-dose nitrous oxide is known to increase reaction time and error rate in psychometric tests, but no electrophysiologic measurement has been capable of measuring this effect
What This Article Tells Us That Is New
  • A quantitative electroencephalogram analysis can identify associations between treatment with low-dose nitrous oxide and performance on psychometric tests
  • Temporal complexity decreases in the medial cortical regions during nitrous oxide administration and is correlated with psychometric performance