The effects of the use of anesthesia on infants and young children have been a concern for doctors and parents for many years. Each year, millions of patients are exposed to anesthesia during surgery, and about a half a million of those patients are children under the age of three. In the past, studies have been done on young monkeys and other animals that showed anesthetics may kill brain cells, affect memory, and cause behavioral problems. However, since these were animals and not children, these studies offered no definitive results.
Just recently, results of a study published in the British medical journal The Lancet, announced that findings show the use of general anesthesia for a brief duration on an infants and young children does not cause developmental deficits. This study involved more than 500 infants at hospitals around the world between 2007 and 2013.
About half of the infants received general anesthesia during the surgery, and the other half had awake-regional anesthesia. The results of the study were based on the outcome of the children involved at age two. The children’s behaviors were tested with the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development-III test. This examines cognitive, adaptive, motor, social-emotional, and language behaviors. No evidence showed that the children who had received general anesthesia, performed any differently than the children who had not. The same group of children will also be tested again at age five.
This study is the first of its kind, and provides a strong indication that exposing children to anesthesia for a brief duration will not negatively affect their development. There are still many other ongoing studies related to this that will continue to examine long-term effects. Researchers are also continuing to look for different types of anesthetics that may be a better alternative for infants and young children.
“Our research provides the strongest evidence to date that anesthesia does not cause cognitive issues in infants undergoing general anesthesia and that brief exposure to anesthesia need not be avoided,” said Andrew Davidson, M.D., lead author of the study. While this study does not give definitive proof that their are absolutely no risks involved with children receiving anesthesia, it reassures parents and physicians that it is very unlikely the brief use of anesthesia will cause any developmental problems in the future.