Neonatal surgery and concomitant anesthesia coincide with a timeframe of rapid brain development. The speed and complexity of early brain development superimposed on immature regulatory mechanisms that include incomplete cerebral autoregulation, insufficient free radical scavenging and an immature immune response puts the brain at risk. Brain injury may have long-term consequences for multiple functional domains including cognition, learning skills, and behavior. Neurodevelopmental follow-up studies have noted mild-to-moderate deficits in children who underwent major neonatal surgery and related anesthesia. The present review evaluates neonatal surgery against the background of neurobiological processes that unfold at a pace unparalleled by any other period of human brain development. First, a structured summary of early brain development is provided in order to establish theoretical groundwork. Next, literature on brain injury and neurodevelopmental outcome after neonatal surgery is discussed. Special attention is given to recent findings of structural brain damage reported after neonatal surgery. Notably, high-quality imaging data acquired before surgery are currently lacking. Third, mechanisms of injury are interrogated taking the perspective of early brain development into account. We propose a novel disease model that constitutes a triad of inflammation, vascular immaturity, and neurotoxicity of prolonged exposure to anesthetic drugs. With each of these components exacerbating the other, this amalgam incites the perfect storm, resulting in brain injury. When examining the brain, it seems intuitive to distinguish between neonates (i.e., <60 postconceptional weeks) and more mature infants, multiple and/or prolonged anesthesia exposure and single, short surgery. This review culminates in an outline of anesthetic considerations and future directions that we believe will help move the field forward.

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Keunen, Weiland, de Bakker, de Vries, & Stevens.
Pediatric Anesthesia March 2022