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Study suggests early-childhood anesthesia exposure may affect the brain

Research published this week in Pediatrics takes a newly rigorous approach to investigating whether anesthesia exposure harms young children's developing brains. The results suggest that even a single anesthesia exposure before age 3 could hurt kids' language skills and abstract reasoning abilities.

Earlier studies, including those in animals, had suggested that anesthesia drugs harm young brains, but none had taken such a direct approach to the question as the new paper. In the latest study, Columbia University's Caleb Ing, MD, and colleagues studied a group of 2,608 Australian children, 321 of whom received anesthesia at least once before age 3. At age 10, the children's cognitive function was rigorously tested. Scores for skill in expressive language (the ability to form words and sentences) and receptive language (understanding what others say) were both lower in children who had been exposed to anesthesia than those never exposed, as were abstract-reasoning scores. Motor skills, behavior, and visual tracking and attention were not different between the groups.

In a Healthland entry on the research, Ing cautioned that more work is needed to clarify the new findings:

While the exposed children showed deficits in language and reasoning, the researchers were not able to determine whether that effect was due to the anesthesia or to the underlying medical condition that required surgery in the first place. But Ing notes that anesthesia was the likely influence on brain development, since most of the infants who were exposed had had relatively minor procedures, including tonsillectomy, insertion of ear tubes to drain infections and circumcision; only a small percentage needed operations for more serious heart problems or neurological conditions.

Still, says Ing, “At this point there is not enough evidence to show a causal link between anesthesia and deficits. It’s concerning in the sense that we should continue to pursue research to answer this question. I don’t think we should change our practice; we still need to do a lot more research before causing too much alarm.”

Although many uses of anesthesia can't be avoided, the research could help scientists and physicians figure out what cognitive problems to watch for in children who have had anesthesia, as well as how to remedy them, the Healthland post concludes.

Previously: Researchers gain new insights into state of anesthesia

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