Recent animal and human epidemiological studies suggest that early childhood exposure to anesthesia may have adverse effects on brain development. As more than 50% of pregnant women in the United States and one-third in the United Kingdom receive regional anesthesia during labor and delivery, understanding the effects of perinatal anesthesia on postnatal brain development has important public health relevance.
We used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to assess the effects of regional anesthesia during labor and delivery as part of a larger study of perinatal exposures on the morphological features of the neonatal brain. We mapped morphological features of the cortical surface in 37 healthy infants, 24 exposed and 13 unexposed to regional anesthesia at delivery, who were scanned within the first 6 weeks of life.
Infants exposed to maternal anesthesia compared with unexposed infants had greater local volumes in portions of the frontal and occipital lobes bilaterally and right posterior portion of the cingulate gyrus. Longer durations of exposure to anesthesia correlated positively with local volumes in the occipital lobe.
Anesthesia exposure during labor and delivery was associated with larger volumes in portions of the frontal and occipital lobes and cingulate gyrus in neonates. Longitudinal MRI studies are needed to determine whether these morphological effects of anesthesia persist and what their consequences on cognition and behavior may be.