Abstract: N-Heterocyclic carbenes (NHCs) belong to the popular family of organocatalysts used in a wide range of reactions, including that for the synthesis of complex natural products and biologically active compounds. In their organocatalytic manifestation, NHCs are known to impart umpolung reactivity to aldehydes and ketones, which are then exploited in the generation of homoenolate, acyl anion, and enolate equivalents suitable for a plethora of reactions such as annulation, benzoin, Stetter, Claisen rearrangement, cycloaddition, and C–C and C–H bond functionalization reactions and so on. A common thread that runs through these NHC catalyzed reactions is the proposed involvement of an enaminol, also known as the Breslow intermediate, formed by the nucleophilic addition of an NHC to a carbonyl group of a suitable electrophile. In the emerging years of NHC catalysis, enaminol remained elusive and was largely considered a putative intermediate owing to the difficulties encountered in its isolation and characterization. However, in the last decade, synergistic efforts utilizing an array of computational and experimental techniques have helped in gaining important insights into the formation and characterization of Breslow intermediates. Computational studies have suggested that a direct 1,2-proton transfer within the initial zwitterionic intermediate, generated by the action of an NHC on the carbonyl carbon, is energetically prohibitive and hence the participation of other species capable of promoting an assisted proton transfer is more likely. The proton transfer assisted by additives (such as acids, bases, other species, or even a solvent) was found to ease the kinetics of formation of Breslow intermediates. These important details on the formation, in situ detection, isolation, and characterization of the Breslow intermediate are scattered over a series of reports spanning well over a decade, and we intend to consolidate them in this review and provide a critical assessment of these developments. Given the central role of the Breslow intermediate in organocatalytic reactions, this treatise is expected to serve as a valuable source of knowledge on the same.
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