Oct. 21, 2008 -- Early research suggests a possible link between exposure to general anesthesia in infancy and early childhood and behavioral and developmental disorders later on.
Children in the study exposed to general anesthesia were twice as likely as unexposed children to be diagnosed with such disorders.
But the findings are preliminary and must be confirmed, study co-author and Columbia University professor of anesthesiology and pediatrics Lena S. Sun, MD, tells WebMD.
She adds that the results should be interpreted with caution and should not be viewed by parents as a reason to avoid necessary surgical procedures.
"That is the last thing I would want parents to do," she says. "The main take-home message at this point is that there is a need for more research to answer this question."
Exposure to Anesthesia in Childhood
Up until now, all the research has been in animals. Several mouse studies have shown commonly used anesthetic agents may be toxic to the developing brain.
In an effort to assess whether the same is true in humans, Sun and colleagues from Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons examined the medical records of 625 children who had been exposed to general anesthesia during surgery and 5,000 children who had no history of exposure.
All of the children were born between 1999 and 2000 and all were enrolled in the New York State Medicaid program. The children exposed to general anesthesia had undergone surgery to repair uncomplicated hernias.
After adjusting for factors associated with behavioral and developmental disorders, including low birth weight and gender, the researchers concluded that children with a history of exposure to general anesthesia were nearly twice as likely to have a recognized developmental or behavioral disorder as children with no exposure.
Sun presented the findings Tuesday at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists in Orlando, Fla.
She says the findings may have been influenced by the fact that all the children in the study were economically disadvantaged.
"It may be that children taken from a Medicaid population would be more vulnerable for other reasons," she says.
Sun and colleagues are planning a new study in which they will follow children exposed to general anesthesia early in life and compare their developmental development to that of a sibling.
"Our findings are preliminary but provocative," she says.
Pediatric surgeon Charles Stolar, MD, agrees.
Stolar directs the pediatric surgery department at Columbia's Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital, but he was not involved in the newly reported study.
"Right now we can't say if giving general anesthesia to infants and young children has lasting consequences," he says. "Studies like this one will help answer the question."