Clinical Evidence for Any Effect of Anesthesia on the Developing Brain
A recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration warning advised that prolonged or repeated exposure to general anesthetics may affect neurodevelopment in children. This warning is based on a wealth of preclinical animal studies and relatively few human studies. The human studies include a variety of different populations with several different outcome measures. Interpreting the results requires consideration of the outcome used, the power of the study, the length of exposure and the efforts to reduce the confounding effects of comorbidity and surgery. Most, but not all, of the large population-based studies find evidence for associations between surgery in early childhood and slightly worse subsequent academic achievement or increased risk for later diagnosis of a behavioral disability. In several studies, the amount of added risk is very small; however, there is some evidence for a greater association with multiple exposures. These results may be consistent with the preclinical data, but the possibility of confounding means the positive associations can only be regarded as weak evidence for causation. Finally, there is strong evidence that brief exposure is not associated with any long term risk in humans.