Over the past decade, the safety of anesthetic agents in children has been questioned after the discovery that immature animals exposed to anesthesia display apoptotic neurodegeneration and long-term cognitive deficiencies. We examined the association between exposure to anesthesia in children under age 3 and outcomes in language, cognitive function, motor skills, and behavior at age 10.
We performed an analysis of the Western Australian Pregnancy Cohort (Raine) Study, which includes 2868 children born from 1989 to 1992. Of 2608 children assessed, 321 were exposed to anesthesia before age 3, and 2287 were unexposed.
On average, exposed children had lower scores than their unexposed peers in receptive and expressive language (Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals: Receptive [CELF-R] and Expressive [CELF-E]) and cognition (Colored Progressive Matrices [CPM]). After adjustment for demographic characteristics, exposure to anesthesia was associated with increased risk of disability in language (CELF-R: adjusted risk ratio [aRR], 1.87; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.20–2.93, CELF-E: aRR, 1.72; 95% CI, 1.12–2.64), and cognition (CPM: aRR, 1.69; 95% CI, 1.13–2.53). An increased aRR for disability in language and cognition persisted even with a single exposure to anesthesia (CELF-R aRR, 2.41; 95% CI, 1.40–4.17, and CPM aRR, 1.73; 95% CI, 1.04–2.88).
Our results indicate that the association between anesthesia and neuropsychological outcome may be confined to specific domains. Children in our cohort exposed to anesthesia before age 3 had a higher relative risk of language and abstract reasoning deficits at age 10 than unexposed children.