Assessment of the effect of clonidine on depth of anaesthesia is difficult because clonidine combines analgesic, sedative and direct haemodynamic effects. We thus evaluated the influence of clonidine on the bispectral index (BIS) and its potential dose-sparing effect on propofol. After induction of anaesthesia with target-controlled infusion of propofol and obtaining an unchanged bispectral index (pre-BIS), clonidine 4 microg kg(-1) or placebo was administered randomly to 50 patients in a double-blind manner. Subsequently, if there was a decrease in BIS we reduced the target concentration of propofol until pre-BIS was reached. The pre-BIS was maintained and a remifentanil infusion was added during surgery. The courses of the BIS, heart rate and blood pressure were recorded and the total amounts of intra-operative propofol and remifentanil were determined. Assessment of implicit memory during anaesthesia was performed with an auditory implicit memory test consisting of item sequences. Administration of clonidine resulted in a decrease in the BIS from 45 (SD 4) to 40 (6) (P<0.001), which allowed a reduction of propofol target concentration from 3.3 (0.6) to 2.7 (0.7) microg ml(-1) (P<0.001) and measured propofol concentration from 2.9 (0.6) to 2.5 (0.7) kg ml(-1) (P=0.009) in order to maintain the pre-BIS value. During subsequent surgery, propofol requirements were reduced by 20% (P=0.002) in the clonidine group and a similar amount of remifentanil was used in each group. The increase in anaesthetic depth given by clonidine can therefore be measured with bispectral EEG analysis and allows reduction of the propofol dose to achieve a specific depth of anaesthesia.