Childhood Exposure to Anesthesia linked to Learning Disabilities

Mayo Clinic researchers have found that children undergo multiple surgeries with anesthesia during their first three years of life are at higher risk of developing learning disabilities.

Using data from the Rochester Epidemiology Project, researchers studied the medical records of over 5,000 children fromwho were born between 1976 and 1982.

The research team, led by Robert Wilder, M.D., Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist, found that although one exposure to anesthesia was not harmful, more than one almost doubled the risk that a child would be identified as having a learning disability before age 19. The risk also increased with longer durations of anesthesia. Even so it is unclear whether the anesthetic, the physiological stress of surgery, or the medical problems that required surgery necessary are responsible for the increased risk of learning disabilities.

The general anesthesia chemicals in use during the study period were primarily halothane and nitrous oxide (known commonly as laughing gas). Halothane is no longer used in the U.S. but has been replaced by similar agents. Nitrous oxide is widely used throughout the world and commonly in the dental setting.

Other studies have linked anesthesia exposure in young children to behavioral problems. The research team would like to continue and examine the database for 10 more years (1982-1992), which would show more modern anesthetics. The researchers are also working with the FDA to complete a study comparing anesthetic use with children compared to those who did not use an anesthetic.

Adapted from materials provided by Mayo Clinic.

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