There is growing concern regarding the impact of general anesthesia on neurodevelopment in children. Pre-clinical animal studies have linked anesthetic exposure to abnormal central nervous system development, but it is unclear whether these results translate into humans. The purpose of this systematic review from the American Pediatric Surgical Association (APSA) Outcomes and Evidence-Based Practice (OEBP) Committee was to review, summarize, and evaluate the evidence regarding the neurodevelopmental impact of general anesthesia on children and identify factors that may affect the risk of neurotoxicity.
Medline, Cochrane, Embase, Web of Science, and Scopus databases were queried for articles published up to and including December 2017 using the search terms “general anesthesia and neurodevelopment” as well as specific anesthetic agents. The Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines were used to screen manuscripts for inclusion in the review. A consensus statement of recommendations in response to each study question was synthesized based upon the best available evidence.
In total, 493 titles were initially identified, with 56 articles selected for full analysis and 44 included for review. Based on currently available developmental assessment tools, a single exposure to general anesthesia does not appear to have a significant effect on general neurodevelopment, although prolonged or multiple anesthetic exposures may have some adverse effects. Exposure to general anesthesia may affect different domains of development at different ages. Regional anesthetic techniques with the addition of dexmedetomidine and/or some intravenous agents may mitigate the risks of neurotoxicity. This approach may be performed safely in some patients and can be considered as an option in selected short procedures.
There is no conclusive evidence that a single short anesthetic in infancy has a detectable neurodevelopmental effect. Data do not support waiting until later in childhood to perform general anesthesia for single short procedures. With the complexities and nuances of different anesthetic methods, patients and procedures, the planning and execution of anesthesia for the pediatric patient is generally best accomplished by an anesthesiologist, ideally a pediatric anesthesiologist.