Researchers at the Mayo Clinic have found a possible link between anesthesia exposure and learning disabilities in kids.
The study found that children who underwent multiple surgeries as infants or toddlers were twice as likely to have learning disabilities than those who only had one surgery or none at all.
The study was prompted by research on rats and monkeys that tested the effects of anesthesia on neurological and cognitive development, anesthesiologist Dr. Robert Wilder said.
"The first finding was that they had brain cells die in unusually large numbers," Wilder said. "Follow up studies showed that it seemed to affect their ability to learn new tasks as they got older. So we were trying to answer the question, is there any reason to be worried in people?"
The Mayo Clinic study examined the medical records of 5,357 kids born in Olmsted County between 1976 and 1982. That data is part of the Rochester Epidemiology Project. All of Rochester's schools provided test results for their students. Premature births and other factors were accounted for in the analysis of the data.
While the data indicates there is cause for concern, Wilder said the anesthesia administered in preparation for surgery isn't necessarily the problem. Stress from multiple surgeries could have been a cause, or the illnesses themselves could have impaired the children's neurological development.
Wilder cautions parents should not avoid a needed surgery because of these findings.
"Most surgery that is done in this population cannot be postponed. And it is very clear that trying to operate without adequate anesthesia is worse than the effects that we saw in this study," he said.
Operating without anesthetic can lead to morbidity and sometimes death, Wilder said.
"On the plus side," Wilder said, "our data suggested that single surgical procedures did not raise the risk of learning disabilities at all."
Wilder said his team is hoping to get funding to expand their database. Other research is currently being conducted on young hernia patients to determine whether local anesthetic has the same results as general anesthetic.
The study is published in the journal Anesthesiology.