PURPOSE: There is controversy about relevant EEG signal changes indicating adequate or inadequate anaesthesia. Differences of drug-induced and nociceptive mediated signal changes have not been studied in detail. The present study investigates whether signal changes during decreases of depth of anaesthesia due to surgical stimulation depend on different isoflurane concentrations during sufentanil anaesthesia. METHODS: Following IRB approval and written informed consent 28 patients (ASA: I; age 43 +/- 11 y) scheduled for elective abdominal surgery were included in the study. Anaesthesia: propofol (2.0 mg/kg) and sufentanil (1.0 micrograms/kg). Following endotracheal intubation (vecuronium 0.1 mg/kg) patients were normoventilated (P(ET)CO2: 36-38 mmHg). Randomly assigned to steady-state anaesthesia (group 1: P(ET)Isoflurane 0.2%, (14n); group 2: P(ET)Isoflurane 0.6%, (14n) during the start of surgery. Monitoring: heart rate (HF), mean arterial blood pressure (MAP), P(ET)CO2, arterial oxygen saturation and rectal temperature. EEG (16 channels referenced to Cz; CATEEM, Medisyst, Linden) recorded 5 min before until 10 min after the start of surgery. EEG-analysis (FFT: 4s, 256/s, 0.45-35.0 Hz): topographical distribution of power spectral densities (delta, theta, alpha 1, and alpha 2). Artifact control: ECG and EOG. RESULTS: Surgical stimulation resulted in increases of MAP in both groups (p < 0.05 vs BL), whereas HR was only slightly affected in group 2 when compared with BL. Other variables except of EEG data did not change over time. In group 1 (0.2% isoflurane) surgical stimulation resulted in decreases of delta over the whole cortex (F2, C3, P3, O1) and in marked increases of alpha predominantly at central leads (C3)(p < 0.05 vs BL). In group 2 (0.6% isoflurane) nociceptive stimulation was associated with decreases of faster waves (alpha: F3)(p < 0.05 vs BL) and increases in delta at fronto-central areas (F3, C3)(p < 0.05 vs BL). CONCLUSIONS: EEG recordings are useful in assessing pharmacodynamic drug effects. In contrast, intraoperative EEG recordings have a low correlation to clinical signs of changes in the anaesthetic state. Previous studies demonstrate paradoxical EEG-arousal reactions during isoflurane anaesthesia. The present data suggest that classical or even paradoxical EEG arousal due to nociceptive stimulation may depend on the isoflurane concentration. It seems reasonable that the ascending reticular formation is functionally blocked by isoflurane in a dose-dependent manner.