Surgical anesthesia in young children linked to effects on IQ, brain structure

Posted on June 10, 2015

Children who received general anesthesia for surgery before age 4 had diminished language comprehension, lower IQ and decreased gray matter density in posterior regions of their brain, according to a new study in the journal Pediatrics.

Researchers from Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center report their findings in the journal's June 8 online edition. The authors recommend additional studies to determine anesthesia's precise molecular effects on the brain and contribution to diminished brain function and composition. Researchers say this knowledge could make it possible to develop mitigating strategies for what the authors describe as a potential dilemma for child health.

"The ultimate goal of our laboratory and clinical research is to improve safety and outcomes in young children who have no choice but to undergo surgery with anesthesia to treat their serious health concerns," said Andreas Loepke, MD, PhD, FAAP, lead study author and an anesthesiologist in the Department of Anesthesiology at Cincinnati Children's. "We also have to better understand to what extent anesthetics and other factors contribute to learning abnormalities in children before making drastic changes to our current practice, which by all measures has become very safe."

For their current retrospective study, the authors compared the scores of 53 healthy participants of a language development study (ages 5 to 18 years with no history of surgery) with the scores of 53 children in the same age range who had undergone surgery before the age of 4.

The authors stress that average test scores for all 106 children in the study were within population norms, regardless of surgical history. Still, compared with children who had not undergone surgery, children exposed to anesthesia scored significantly lower in listening comprehension and performance IQ. Researchers also report that decreased language and IQ scores were associated with lower gray matter density in the occipital cortex and cerebellum of the brain.

Children included in the study did not have a history of neurologic or psychological illness, head trauma or any other associated conditions. Neurocognitive assessments included the Oral and Written Language Scales and the Wechsler Intelligence Scale. Brain structural comparisons were conducted by MRI scans.

Although data in the current study highlight the need to look for improved methods of administering anesthesia, Loepke and his colleagues emphasize that current methods are very safe. Loepke advises parents who are concerned to discuss with their pediatrician and surgeon the risks of a surgical procedure -- and the potential risk of anesthetic exposure -- versus the risks of not having a surgery.


Category(s):Adult psychological development, Child Development

Source material from Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center


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