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News / October 28, 2008

Anaesthesia exposure may increase risk for childhood developmental disorders

by Guy Hiscott

A new anaesthesiology study analysis, presented at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Anaesthesiologists, indicates a possible link between childhood exposure to general anaesthesia and an increased risk of behavioural and developmental disorders in young children.

Recent animal studies have shown that commonly used anaesthetic agents may have serious neurotoxic effects on the developing brain. To assess whether the experimental animal data can be applied to humans, Lena S Sun MD, professor of anaesthesiology and paediatrics, and colleagues at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Mailman School of Public Health and the Columbia University School of Nursing, performed an analysis of a group of children born into the New York State Medicaid Program between 1999 and 2000.

Over a four-year period, 625 children under the age of three were exposed to general anaesthesia as part of uncomplicated hernia repair. When compared to a random sample of 5,000 children with no history of anaesthesia exposure, the children exposed to anaesthetic agents were twice as likely to be (subsequently) diagnosed with a developmental or behaviour disorder.

‘Given that the study subjects were taken from a Medicaid population, one limitation of the data is the demographic factors of this group that may vary from the general population. The excess risk of developmental and behavioural disorders in the children exposed to anaesthesia cannot be completely explained by demographic factors or confounding health factors including premature birth or low birth weight.’

Researchers stress the need for more rigorous studies to assess the long-term health effects of exposure to anaesthesia in young children.

‘This current analysis only examined two or three years of post-exposure data. To determine long-term effects of exposure, it is essential to continue and expand the efforts of this study with continued follow-up with the study subjects and design additional studies in which direct neurodevelopmental outcomes could be assessed. It is important to emphasise that given the limitations and preliminary nature of the study, these results should be interpreted with caution; parents should not keep their children from having necessary surgical procedures,’ said Dr Sun.

While a number of animal studies have provided useful direction for further research, it is important to note that animal studies are considered basic science, and their findings do not always translate to the complex physiological system of human beings.

For more information visit the American Society of Anaesthesiologists website at