Background: Exposure to general anaesthesia in children may be related to deficits in certain areas of cognition. It is unclear if these deficits could be measured in the immediate postoperative period in young children. The goal of the current study was to evaluate the trajectory of cognitive function in the domains of processing speed, working memory, and fine motor skills amongst children aged 2.5-6 yr who underwent general anaesthesia for elective surgery.

Methods: Children who were scheduled to receive general anaesthesia for surgery were recruited for assessment of cognitive function at three times: preoperatively, 1-2 weeks postoperatively, and 3 months postoperatively. Assessments included processing speed, working memory, and fine motor skills. To assess longitudinal changes in the cognitive outcomes, linear mixed models were built with visit number included as a categorical variable and subject-specific random intercepts.

Results: Sixty-one children (33 girls [54%]) enrolled in the study. Twenty-three children (38%) had received general anaesthesia previously. Significant improvements in picture memory, cancellation, and the processing speed composite were found at Visit 2. The improvement in cancellation and processing speed composite remained significant at Visit 3. Statistically significant improvement in Mullen fine motor score was noticed at Visit 3 compared with Visit 1. The pattern of results did not depend upon prior anaesthesia exposure.

Conclusions: General anaesthesia for elective surgery in young children was not associated with declines in working memory, processing speed, and fine motor skills in the first 3 months postoperatively, including in children with prior exposure to anaesthesia.

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Yu Shi et al.
British Journal of Anaesthesia February 2022