BACKGROUND: An auditory perceptual learning paradigm was used to investigate whether implicit memories are formed during general anesthesia. METHODS: Eighty-seven patients who had an American Society of Anesthesiologists physical status of I-III and were scheduled to undergo an elective surgery with general anesthesia were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group received auditory stimulation during surgery, whereas the other did not. The auditory stimulation consisted of pure tones presented via headphones. The Bispectral Index level was maintained between 40 and 50 during surgery. To assess learning, patients performed an auditory frequency discrimination task after surgery, and comparisons were made between the groups. General anesthesia was induced with thiopental and maintained with a mixture of fentanyl and sevoflurane. RESULTS: There was no difference in the amount of learning between the two groups (mean +/- SD improvement: stimulated patients 9.2 +/- 11.3 Hz, controls 9.4 +/- 14.1 Hz). There was also no difference in initial thresholds (mean +/- SD initial thresholds: stimulated patients 31.1 +/- 33.4 Hz, controls 28.4 +/- 34.2 Hz). These results suggest that perceptual learning was not induced during anesthesia. No correlation between the bispectral index and the initial level of performance was found (Pearson r = -0.09, P = 0.59). CONCLUSION: Perceptual learning was not induced by repetitive auditory stimulation during anesthesia. This result may indicate that perceptual learning requires top-down processing, which is suppressed by the anesthetic.