Anesthesia and Learning Disabilities

March 26, 2009

A study suggests children less than 4 years of age who undergo anesthesia multiple times are at higher risk of developing learning disabilities later in childhood.

Since a good portion of last week’s blog was dedicated to central auditory processing disorder, I thought it would be a good time to bring up a study in the current issue of Anesthesiology that suggests children less than 4 years of age who undergo anesthesia multiple times are at higher risk of developing learning disabilities (LD) later in childhood. You can view the entire article without charge on the journal website.

Previous studies have linked anesthesia to brain abnormalities in young rodents. Based on this kind of data, Mayo Clinic researchers led by Robert Wilder, MD, decided to use LDs (disabilities identified in reading, written language, and math) as an endpoint to their study of the medical records for 5357 children included in the Rochester Epidemiology Project.

The findings indicated that anesthesia administered only once did not increase risk (HR = 1.0; 95% CI, 0.79-1.27). However, compared to children with no anesthesia exposure, the administration of anesthesia more than once almost doubled the risk that an LD would be identified before the child reached 19 years of age (20.0% vs. 35.1%, respectively). Longer durations of anesthesia also significantly increased LD risk (P=0.016).

Granted, you can’t put your finger directly on the anesthesia as the causal agent in this scenario. But the data certainly make additional investigation look worthwhile.