CINCINNATI – Children who received general anesthesia for surgery before age 4 had diminished language comprehension, lower IQ and decreased gray matter density in posterior regions of their brain, according to a new study in the journal Pediatrics.

Researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center report their findings in the journal’s June 8 online edition. The authors recommend additional studies to determine anesthesia’s precise molecular effects on the brain and contribution to diminished brain function and composition. Researchers say this knowledge could make it possible to develop mitigating strategies for what the authors describe as a potential dilemma for child health.

“The ultimate goal of our laboratory and clinical research is to improve safety and outcomes in young children who have no choice but to undergo surgery with anesthesia to treat their serious health concerns,” said Andreas Loepke, MD, PhD, FAAP, lead study author and an anesthesiologist in the Department of Anesthesiology at Cincinnati Children’s. “We also have to better understand to what extent anesthetics and other factors contribute to learning abnormalities in children before making drastic changes to our current practice, which by all measures has become very safe.”