March 25, 2009

Child anesthesia and disabilities linked

U.S. researchers found children who had multiple surgeries under anesthesia before age 3 are at higher risk of learning disabilities later.

Using data from the Rochester Epidemiology Project, researchers at the Mayo Clinic studied the medical records of 5,357 children from Olmsted County, Minn., who were born between 1976-1982.

Study leader Dr. Robert Wilder, 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.

It's very important for parents and families to understand that although we see a clear difference in the frequency of learning disabilities in children exposed to anesthesia, we don't know whether these differences are actually caused by anesthesia, study co-author Dr. Randall Flick, a Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist said.

The problem is that anyone who underwent an anesthetic also had surgery and it's unclear whether it's the anesthetic, the physiological stress of surgery or perhaps the medical problems that made surgery necessary that are responsible for the learning disabilities, Wilder added.

Young children's brains are more vulnerable to a variety of problems because they are undergoing dynamic growth with the brain rapidly forming connections between cells and trimming excess cells and connections, the researcher said.

The findings are published in the journal Anesthesiology.