Andreas Loepke, MD, PhD, FAAP.

Andreas Loepke, MD, PhD, FAAP

Researchers at Cincinnati Children’s have found that using general anesthesia during surgery in children younger than age 4 could have damaging effects on language comprehension and IQ.

Their findings, published July 8, 2015, in Pediatrics, are spurring work to lessen anesthesia’s effects and to understand how the drugs affect brain function and composition.

“We have to better understand to what extent anesthetics and other factors contribute to learning abnormalities in children before making drastic changes to our current practice, which by all measures has become very safe,” says Andreas Loepke, MD, PhD, FAAP, anesthesiologist at Cincinnati Children’s and the study’s lead author.

Loepke and his colleagues pursued the study after finding evidence of neurocognitive impairment in mice exposed to general anesthesia. Those previously published studies raised the researchers’ concerns about similar effects in young children.

The Pediatrics study compared language study scores of 106 children, ages 5 to 18. Half had not had surgery, and half had surgery before age 4. Children exposed to anesthesia scored significantly lower in listening comprehension and performance IQ. Age, gender, socioeconomic status, and the types of surgeries and length of anesthetic exposure were factored into the calculations.

Although Loepke and his team are conducting laboratory studies into alternative anesthetic methods, they emphasize that current practices are quite safe — particularly when viewed in the context of life-saving procedures.

“The ultimate goal of our research is to improve safety and outcomes in young children who have no choice but to undergo surgery with anesthesia,” he says.