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Anesthesia and Cognitive Performance in Children: No Evidence for a Causal Relationship

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 February 2012

Meike Bartels*
Affiliation:
Department of Biological Psychology, VU University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. m.bartels@psy.vu.nl
Robert R. Althoff
Affiliation:
Departments of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont, United States of America.
Dorret I. Boomsma
Affiliation:
Department of Biological Psychology, VU University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
*
*Address for correspondence: Meike Bartels, PhD, Department of Biological Psychology, VU University, Van der Boechorststraat 1, 1081 BT Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Abstract

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Recent findings of an association between anesthesia administration in the first three years of life and later learning disabilities have created concerns that anesthesia has neurotoxic effects on synaptogenesis, causing later learning problems. An alternative hypothesis is that those children who are likely to undergo surgery early in life have significant medical problems that are associated with a vulnerability to learning disabilities. These two hypotheses were evaluated in a monozygotic concordant–discordant twin design. Data on anesthesia administration and learning abilities and disabilities were available for 1,143 monozygotic twin pairs (56% female) from the Netherlands Twin Registry. Parents of the twins reported on anesthesia use before age 3 and again between ages 3 and 12 years. Near age 12, educational achievement and cognitive problems were assessed with standardized tests and teacher ratings. Results showed that twins who were exposed to anesthesia before age 3 had significantly lower educational achievement scores and significantly more cognitive problems than twins not exposed to anesthesia. However, there was one important exception: the unexposed co-twin from discordant pairs did not differ from their exposed co-twin. Thus, there is no evidence for a causal relationship between anesthesia administration and later learning-related outcomes in this sample. Rather, there is evidence for early anesthesia being a marker of an individual's vulnerability for later learning problems, regardless of their exposure to anesthesia.

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