BACKGROUND: Automatic control of depth of hypnosis using the Bispectral Index (BIS) can help to reduce phases of inadequate control. Automated BIS control with propofol or isoflurane administration via an infusion system has recently been described, a comparable study with isoflurane administration via a vaporizer had not been conducted yet. Our hypothesis was that our new model based closed-loop control system can safely be applied clinically and maintains the BIS within a defined target range better than manual control. METHODS: Twenty-three patients, American Society of Anesthesiologists risk class I-III, scheduled for decompressive spinal surgery were randomized into groups with either closed-loop or manual control of BIS using isoflurane. An alfentanil target-controlled infusion was adjusted according to standard clinical practice. The BIS target was set to 50 during the operation. The necessity of human intervention in the control system and events of inadequate sedation (BIS <40 or BIS >60) were counted. The number of phases of inadequate control, defined as BIS >/=65 for more than 3 min, were recorded. The performance of the controller was assessed by several indicators (mean absolute deviation and median absolute performance error) and measured during the skin incision phase, the subsequent low flow phase, and the wound closure phase. Recovery profiles of both groups were compared. RESULTS: No human intervention was necessary in the closed-loop control group. The occurrence of inadequate BIS was quantified with the mean and median values of the area under the curve and amounted to 0.360 and 0.088 for the manual control group and 0.049 and 0.017 for the closed-loop control group, respectively. In the manual control group nine phases of inadequate control were recorded, compared with one in the closed-loop control group, 10.3% to 0.5% of all observed anesthesia time. During all phases the averages of the performance parameters (mean absolute deviation and median absolute performance error) were more than 30% smaller in closed-loop control than in manual control (P < 0.05 between groups). CONCLUSIONS: Closed-loop control with BIS using isoflurane can safely be applied clinically and performs significantly better than manual control, even in phases with abrupt changes of stimulation that cannot be foreseen by the control system.