By working with rats and mice in the laboratory, researchers found that general anesthetic was responsible for brain cell death. After seeing these results, they were concerned that if the effects were similar in humans, brain development in young children may be affected.
To test this, they did a language development study on two groups of healthy children, ages 5 to 18. When they compared results between children who had been given general anesthetic before the age of 4 to those who had never had surgery, they found that children who had been put under general anesthesia at a young age performed lower in listening comprehension and IQ tests. These children also had less grey matter density in posterior regions of their brains.
Now, to be clear, this research isn’t suggesting that general anesthetic isn’t safe. Children that undergo procedures involving general anesthesia usually aren’t there for elective surgeries, so the benefits of the surgery outweigh the risks of the anesthesia. But this study highlights the need for further research into the ways that anesthetic affects the developing brain, and hopefully it will lead to safety improvement solutions. This is also a great example of animal studies leading to information that could help humans.
Scientists are already working on drugs that could help lessen harmful effects of anesthesia, and this research may help provide insight that could speed up the process. Read more about it here.