General anesthesia has been unequivocally linked to abnormal development of the central nervous system, leading to neurocognitive impairments in laboratory models. In vitro and in vivo studies have consistently shown that exposure to GABA agonists (eg, volatile anesthetics, midazolam, and propofol) or NMDA antagonists (eg, ketamine, isoflurane, and nitrous oxide) produces dose dependent and developmental age dependent effects on various neuronal transmission systems. Exposure to these drugs increases neuronal cell death in juvenile animals including rats, mice, and non-human primates. The possibility of anesthetic induced neurotoxicity occurring in children has led to concerns about the safety of pediatric anesthesia. A spectrum of behavioral changes has been documented after general anesthetic exposure in young children, including emergence delirium, which may be evidence of toxicity. Most clinical studies are retrospective; specifics about medications or monitoring are unavailable and many of the outcomes may not be sensitive to detect small neurocognitive deficits. Some of these retrospective studies have shown an association between anesthesia exposure at a young age and neurocognitive deficits, but others have not. Practitioners and families should be reassured that although general anesthetics have the potential to induce neurotoxicity, very little clinical evidence exists to support this.

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