Most common anesthetic agents have been implicated in causing neurodegeneration in the developing animal brain, leading to warnings regarding their use in children. The hypothesis of this study was that exposure to general anesthesia and surgery before 4 yr would associate with adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes at age 7 to 16 yr.
This cohort study comprised 13,433 children enrolled in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, a prospective, population-based birth cohort born between 1991 and 1993 in southwest England. Children were grouped by none, single, or multiple exposures to general anesthesia and surgery by 4 yr. Motor, cognitive, linguistic, educational, social, and behavioral developmental outcomes were evaluated at 7 to 16 yr using school examination results, validated parent/teacher questionnaires, or clinic assessments. Continuous outcomes were z-scored. P-value thresholds were corrected using false discovery rate procedures.
This study compared 46 neurodevelopmental outcomes in 13,433 children: 8.3% (1,110) exposed singly and 1.6% (212) exposed multiply to general anesthesia and surgery. Of these, the following reached predefined levels of statistical significance (corrected P < 0.00652): dynamic balance scores were 0.3 SD (95% CI, 0.1, 0.5; P < 0.001) lower in multiply exposed children; manual dexterity performance was 0.1 SD (95% CI, 0.0, 0.2; P = 0.006) lower in singly and 0.3 SD (95% CI, 0.1, 0.4; P < 0.001) lower in multiply exposed children; and social communication scores were 0.1 SD (95% CI, 0.0, 0.2; P = 0.001) and 0.4 SD (95% CI, 0.3, 0.5; P < 0.001) lower in singly and multiply exposed children, respectively. General anesthesia and surgery were not associated with impairments in the remaining neurodevelopmental measures including: general cognitive ability; attention; working memory; reading, spelling, verbal comprehension and expression; behavioral difficulties; or national English, mathematics, and science assessments (all ≤0.1 SD; corrected P ≥ 0.00652).
Early childhood general anesthesia and surgery were not associated with a global picture of clinically and statistically significant neurodegenerative effects, providing reassurance about the neurotoxic potential of general anesthesia. Exposure to anesthesia and surgery was associated with significantly lower motor and social linguistic performance.