Scientists review the potentially harmful effects of anesthesia on developing brains
07/28/2018 // Frances Bloomfield // Views

The usage of general anesthesia can have detrimental effects on the brains of young children. This was the conclusion that Dr. Vesna Jevtovic-Todorovi, head of the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, came to in her review of past scientific studies that discussed the matter.

The studies that Jevtovic-Todorovi assessed made use of rodents and non-human primates. However, Jevtovic-Todorovi chose to focus on research that utilized non-human primates due to their similarities to human beings. In particular, she noted how the brain development of these animals is uncannily similar to ours when it comes to duration, timing, and complexity.

“Despite a number of highly reproducible rodent findings, it is becoming clear that we cannot rely exclusively on rodent data if we are to make inroads into understanding the potential relevance of animal data to humans. Accordingly, the scientific community has begun to rely on a growing body of work being done with nonhuman primates,” wrote Jevtovic-Todorovi.

Over the course of her assessment, Jevtovic-Todorovi discovered that these studies pointed towards general anesthesia administration in a long, single dose as greatly increasing the risk of cognitive deficiencies. Multiple quick doses were found to be just as dangerous. Giving these to children during crucial periods of their development can result in “significant impairments” to their neurocognitive development.

Jevtovic-Todorovi's work adds to the growing body of evidence on how children can be negatively impacted by anesthesia. One such study that uncovered relatively similar findings was conducted in 2015 by researchers from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.


“The ultimate goal of our laboratory and clinical research is to improve safety and outcomes in young children who have no choice but to undergo surgery with anesthesia to treat their serious health concerns,” said lead study author Andreas Loepke.

As part of their research, the investigative team gauged the scores of 106 children who participated in a language development study. Half of the children were healthy and served as the control group, while the remaining 53 children had all undergone surgery before their fourth birthdays.

Although both groups of children had average test scores within population norms, the participants of the second group, or the children who had been subjected to surgery, all scored lower in terms of performance IQ and listening comprehension. These were indicative of compromised brain structure, specifically, decreased gray matter density in the cerebellum and occipital cortex of the brain.

The negative effects of anesthesia has since been acknowledged by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In 2016, they issued a warning that “repeated or lengthy use of general anesthetic and sedation drugs during surgeries or procedures in children younger than three years or in pregnant women during their third trimester may affect the development of children's brains.”

The report continued: “Published studies in pregnant animals and young animals have shown the use of general anesthetic and sedation drugs for more than three hours caused widespread loss of nerve cells in the brain. Studies in young animals suggest these changes result in long-term effects on the animals’ behavior or learning.”

Because of this, physicians are recommended to discuss these risks with the parents and caregivers of young children prior to surgery. Pregnant women are advised to speak to their doctors as well regarding the potential impact of anesthesia on their unborn children.

Go to to view more stories about procedures or medication that may harm the brain in the long run.

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