June 1, 2017

It can make a parent’s heart race – finding out your infant must undergo extensive surgery that requires general anesthesia. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), approximately one million children under the age of four annually undergo surgery with general anesthesia, making understanding effects of early life exposure to anesthesia critical.

Yerkes National Primate Research Center researchers and their colleagues at Mt. Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine set out to determine just that. Through animal research, the team discovered infant monkeys repeatedly exposed to a common anesthetic, sevoflurane, suffered impairment in visual recognition memory after the first year of life. Furthermore, results indicated the impairment may persist long term.

Dr. Maria Alvarado, first author and leader of the Yerkes team, noted, “Animal studies have shown exposure to general anesthesia in infancy can cause loss of cells in the central nervous system and long-term impairments in neurocognitive function.” This finding is consistent with previous human epidemiological studies, which have shown children with multiple exposures to general anesthesia before the age of four are at greater risk of learning disabilities and other cognitive impairments. Impairments may not become apparent until the child begins formal schooling.

The research team published these results in the British Journal of Anaesthesia, marking a significant advancement in anesthesia-related studies. Whereas past studies included variables for surgical procedures, the NPRC and Mt. Sinai teams eliminated these variables, allowing the team to focus specifically on the side effects of anesthesia. With this knowledge, the team is now conducting research to further clarify the extent and duration of these anesthesia-induced impairments.

“Our studies with rhesus monkeys are fundamental to making anesthesia exposure in infancy and childhood as safe as possible,” Dr. Alvarado explains.

Reviewed August 2019

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