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Multiple Anesthesia In Children May Cause Learning Disabilities

March 29, 2009

According to the scientists at Mayo Clinic, children who underwent 2 or more surgeries under anesthesia by the age of 3, may be at a higher risk to be exposed to learning disabilities at a later time.

We do not want to cause panic or scare parents, said Dr. Robert Wilder, lead investigator of a study which is published in the April issue of the journal Anesthesiology. He added that the scientists are linking multiple anesthetic surgeries in kids and an increased number of learning delays in them, but there is no definite evidence that it is anesthesia that is causing these disabilities.

The Mayo Clinic study examined the medical and educational records of 5,357 kids born in five towns in Olmsted County, between 1976 and 1982, and who had lived in the same location at least before they turned 5. The information the scientists got was part of the Rochester Epidemiology Project. All schools in Rochester provided test results for their students. Premature births and other factors were taken into consideration in the analysis of the data.

The experts tracked the number of operations each child underwent before the age of 4, as well as analyzed their scores in reading, writing and math tests, administered once a year from elementary school through high school. In general, kids who had used anesthesia, had received halothane and nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Halothane is no longer used in the United States, according to the study, but it has been replaced by newer drugs which have similar effects on the brain. Laughing gas is very popular and is being used widely in America and in the whole world.

The research found that although one exposure to anesthesia was not harmful and did not increase the risk for developing a learning disability, more than one exposures, however, increased the risk by more than 50 per cent that a child would be diagnosed with a learning disability before the age of 19, and three or more exposures increased the risk by a factor of 2.6. In addition, the experts found that the longer children stayed under anesthesia, the greater was degree of risk. Children's brains are still rapidly developing during these early years of life and are therefore very vulnerable to any kind of intervention, the researchers wrote.

Previous research that involved animals have suggested that there is a big chance that anesthesia drugs might affect the developing brain. One study that was conducted last year found that infants and children under the age of 3, who had underwent hernia surgery, were twice more likely to develop developmental problems and issues with behavior later in life, compared to children who did not have the surgery. Scientists assume that general anesthesia that was used during those operations could be the reason that caused the risk.

However, the authors of the current study say that there is yet more investigation to be done before any definite and final conclusions are made. They say that the association could be attributed to the stress from the surgery at such an early age, when kids are much sicker and more vulnerable, in general, and therefore are more likely to develop learning disabilities.

Meanwhile, Dr. Wilder, who is a consultant in anesthesiology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and an associate professor of anesthesiology at the Mayo Medical School, said that even if it is ever definitely proved that anesthesia might be increasing the risk for later problems with learning, his advice for parents is to always choose the anesthetic surgery for their child. "Of course, you don't want to submit your kid to any unnecessary surgical or medical procedure, but that would have been my advice before studying this."

Tags: Parenting and Families