Annually, millions of children are exposed to anesthetic agents that cause apoptotic neurodegeneration in immature animals. To explore the possible significance of these findings in children, we investigated the association between exposure to anesthesia and subsequent (1) learning disabilities (LDs), (2) receipt of an individualized education program for an emotional/behavior disorder (IEP-EBD), and (3) scores of group-administered achievement tests.
This was a matched cohort study in which children (N = 8548) born between January 1, 1976, and December 31, 1982, in Rochester, Minnesota, were the source of cases and controls. Those exposed to anesthesia (n = 350) before the age of 2 were matched to unexposed controls (n = 700) on the basis of known risk factors for LDs. Multivariable analysis adjusted for the burden of illness, and outcomes including LDs, receipt of an IEP-EBD, and the results of group-administered tests of cognition and achievement were outcomes.
Exposure to multiple, but not single, anesthetic/surgery significantly increased the risk of developing LDs (hazard ratio: 2.12 [95% confidence interval: 1.26–3.54]), even when accounting for health status. A similar pattern was observed for decrements in group-administered tests of achievement and cognition. However, exposure did not affect the rate of children receiving an individualized education program.
Repeated exposure to anesthesia and surgery before the age of 2 was a significant independent risk factor for the later development of LDs but not the need for educational interventions related to emotion/behavior. We cannot exclude the possibility that multiple exposures to anesthesia/surgery at an early age may adversely affect human neurodevelopment with lasting consequence.