Parents want to keep children healthy, and most wouldn’t second guess allowing their child to receive anesthesia for a surgical procedure.
But for children under the age of 4, that decision may be more important than you think. According to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics, it’s possible that general anesthesia could have negative effects on brain function later in life.
The Study and Its Findings
Conducted by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, the study found that general anesthesia could lead to a lower IQ, slower language comprehension and decreased information processing.
A previous study on mice illustrated that cell death and neurocognitive impairment were caused by exposure to general anesthesia, which prompted the scientists to focus on how it would affect children.
The current study compared the linguistic development of 53 participants who had not received anesthesia to 53 participants who had received anesthesia under the age of 4. All participants were between the ages of 5 and 18 years old and were matched based on factors that influence cognitive brain structure. Multiple tests were used to determine the findings, including MRI brain scans, the Oral and Written Language Scales and the Wechsler Intelligence Scale.
Age, gender, handedness, socioeconomic status and previous conditions were taken into account, in addition to the type of anesthetic, the amount that was used and the kind of surgery performed. All participants were found to be within population norms, but those who were exposed to anesthesia showed decreased language and IQ scores. These individuals had more difficulty with listening comprehension and performance IQ.
The time from birth to age four is a sensitive neurodevelopmental period where the brain’s networks are refined and its functioning becomes normal. While scientists may be on to something with this study, the truth is that many factors could lead to abnormalities in brain development and learning. Parents should note that researchers insist on conducting further studies to determine if exposure to general anesthesia is dangerous to the health of a young child.
The current procedures for performing life-saving surgeries for children with serious medical conditions are very safe, but developing a better understanding of the potential affects of anesthesia will only improve healthcare practices worldwide. Researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center are working hard to uncover alternative techniques for general anesthesia, with a focus on potential drug options and international trials for new anesthesiology regimens.
While scientists continue to search for better methods to administer anesthesia, researchers encourage parents to have a discussion with doctors and surgeons to consider the potential risks of anesthesia exposure versus the risks of not having the surgery.