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Research underway on potential harm of pediatric anesthesia

If you have a child for whom surgery that requires general anesthesia is recommended, experts are suggesting you think twice about whether it can’t be put off for a while. The concern among those experts is that they don’t really know what effect general anesthetic might be having on the brains of child patients — especially those who are younger than three.

That’s a question they hope to get answered as a result of research that is now underway. But results of some of the work now being done aren’t likely to be available for several years.

In the meantime, existing evidence from animal studies indicates that current forms of general anesthesia appear to impair brain development in some young mammals. So experts are urging greater caution among parents and doctors. The hope is that caution in proceeding with operations that aren’t urgently required will reduce the chances of preventable negative surgical outcomes.

Researchers stress that the issue here is one of potential threat, not certainty. But they note that experiments in young monkeys and mice have confirmed that some common sedatives and anesthetics kill brain cells. There are also human studies that have associated learning problems in small children who were exposed multiple times to anesthetics.

Those studies lack general application and whether a single exposure is a problem is one of the questions scientists hope to resolve with current studies. Considering that the federal government records that more than a million surgical procedures under general anesthesia are performed on children younger than 4 every year, there could be good reason to be concerned.

Another thing that researchers say they would like to find out is whether there are ways to protect a child’s brain from the degrading effects of anesthetics. But that, too, is something that has yet to be studied.

Shy of that work being completed, experts are recommending that parents of young children be informed of the possible risks well ahead of any recommended surgery so they can make well-informed decisions.