Each year, millions of infants and children are anesthetized for medical and surgical procedures. Yet, a substantial body of preclinical evidence suggests that anesthetics are neurotoxins that cause rapid and widespread apoptotic cell death in the brains of infant rodents and non-human primates. These animals have persistent impairments in cognition and behavior many weeks or months after anesthesia exposure, leading us to hypothesize that anesthetics do more than simply kill brain cells. Indeed, anesthetics cause chronic neuropathology in neurons that survive the insult, which then interferes with major aspects of brain development, synaptic plasticity, and neuronal function. Understanding the phenomenon of anesthesia-induced developmental neurotoxicity is of critical public health importance because clinical studies now report that anesthesia in human infancy is associated with cognitive and behavioral deficits. In our search for mechanistic explanations for why a young and pliable brain cannot fully recover from a relatively brief period of anesthesia, we have accumulated evidence that neonatal anesthesia can dysregulate epigenetic tags that influence gene transcription such as histone acetylation and DNA methylation. In this review, we briefly summarize the phenomenon of anesthesia-induced developmental neurotoxicity. We then discuss chronic neuropathology caused by neonatal anesthesia, including disturbances in cognition, socio-affective behavior, neuronal morphology, and synaptic plasticity. Finally, we present evidence of anesthesia-induced genetic and epigenetic dysregulation within the developing brain that may be transmitted intergenerationally to anesthesia-naïve offspring.

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