The trial of Conrad Murray, the doctor accused of giving Michael Jackson a lethal dose of propofol, has landed the powerful sedative in the spotlight.
Jackson reportedly used drug, which he called his "milk," as a sleep aid. Murray administered the drug the day Jackson died.
But defense lawyers are expected to argue that Jackson gave himself an extra dose of propofol when Murray left the room. A trace amount of the drug, typically injected intravenously, was found in the King of Pop's stomach.
What Is Propofol?
Propofol is a sedative that is usually administered to patients who are undergoing surgery or another medical procedure. It is a fast-acting drug, with most patients receiving it losing consciousness within a matter of seconds.
The potency of propofol as an anesthetic is so widely known, in fact, that in anesthesiology circles, the drug, a white liquid, is nicknamed "milk of amnesia."
While propofol is most often used to sedate patients before a medical procedure, it is also one that palliative care workers have been known to administer to terminal patients who are in pain or who have weeks or days to live.
What Are the Dangers of Propofol?
Propofol is widely known as a risky drug, and it is generally administered only in a controlled medical setting due to the dangers it poses.
"Propofol is an agent that requires very close monitoring and is often limited only to use by anesthesiologists," said Dr. Richard Page, head of cardiology at the University of Washington medical center. "The main issue with this agent is respiratory depression, which in turn could cause cardiac arrest."
"It is a very dangerous drug," said Dr. Brian Olshansky, a cardiologist at the University of Iowa who said he often uses the drug to place patients in deep sedation for certain heart procedures. "It is not for sleep. I cannot imagine anyone would use this outside a very regulated environment such as the availability of emergency respiratory equipment."
One main reason for this, he said, is the speed with which the drug has its effect.
"It rapidly induces unconsciousness and apnea," Olshansky said. "People stop breathing within seconds of being given the drug."
Why Would Anyone Abuse Propofol?
The rapid effect of the drug makes it an exceedingly unusual choice for abuse, said Dr. Jeff Guy of Vanderbilt University, who said such a situation would represent "a quantum leap in the issue of substance abuse."
But despite the effects and risk profile of the drug, some patients who've had the drug describe it as inducing "a very pleasant sleep" that "has the potential to be habit-forming," said Dr. Howard Nearman, chairman of the anesthesiology department at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.
And Dr. Bruce Goldberger, chief of forensic pathology at the University of Florida, noted that the drug "also acts as an aphrodisiac in men -- it has been reported that men have very vivid sexual dreams while under propofol anesthesia."