Conference Coverage

Reassurance on general anesthesia in young kids



– Two recent large, well-conducted, and persuasive studies provide much-needed clarity regarding the neurodevelopmental risks posed by general anesthesia in early childhood, Jessica Sprague, MD, said at the SDEF Hawaii Dermatology Seminar provided by the Global Academy for Medical Education/Skin Disease Education Foundation.

Dr. Jessica Sprague, dermatologist at Univ. of Calif., San Diego, and Rady Children's Hospital Bruce Jancin/MDedge News

Dr. Jessica Sprague

“These two studies can be cited in conversation with parents and are very reassuring for a single episode of general anesthesia,” observed Dr. Sprague, a dermatologist at Rady Children’s Hospital and the University of California, both in San Diego.

“As a take home, I think we can feel pretty confident that single exposure to short-duration general anesthesia does not have any adverse neurocognitive effects,” she added.

In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration issued a drug safety communication that general anesthesia lasting for more than 3 hours in children aged less than 3 years, or repeated shorter-duration general anesthesia, may affect the development of children’s brains. This edict caused considerable turmoil among both physicians and parents. The warning was based upon animal studies suggesting adverse effects, including abnormal axon formation and other structural changes, impaired learning and memory, and heightened emotional reactivity to threats. Preliminary human cohort studies generated conflicting results, but were tough to interpret because of potential confounding issues, most prominently the distinct possibility that the very reason the child was undergoing general anesthesia might inherently predispose to neurodevelopmental problems, the dermatologist explained.

Enter the GAS trial, a multinational, assessor-blinded study in which 722 generally healthy infants undergoing hernia repair at 28 centers in the United States and six other countries were randomized to general anesthesia for a median of 54 minutes or awake regional anesthesia. Assessment via a detailed neuropsychological test battery and parent questionnaires at age 2 and 5 years showed no between-group differences at all. Of note, the GAS trial was funded by the FDA, the National Institutes of Health, and similar national health care agencies in the other participating countries (Lancet. 2019 Feb 16;393[10172]:664-77).

The other major recent research contribution was a province-wide Ontario study led by investigators at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. This retrospective study included 2,346 sibling pairs aged 4-5 years in which one child in each pair received general anesthesia as a preschooler. All participants underwent testing using the comprehensive Early Development Instrument. Reassuringly, no between-group differences were found in any of the five domains assessed by the testing: language and cognitive development, physical health and well-being, emotional health and maturity, social knowledge and competence, and communication skills and general knowledge (JAMA Pediatr. 2019 Jan 1;173[1]:29-36).

These two studies address a pressing issue, since 10% of children in the United States and other developed countries receive general anesthesia within their first 3 years of life. Common indications in dermatology include excisional surgery, laser therapy for extensive port wine birthmarks, and diagnostic MRIs.

Dr. Sprague advised that, based upon the new data, “you definitely do not want to delay necessary imaging studies or surgeries, but MRIs can often be done without general anesthesia in infants less than 2 months old. If you have an infant who needs an MRI for something like PHACE syndrome [posterior fossa brain malformations, hemangioma, arterial lesions, cardiac abnormalities, and eye abnormalities], if you can get them in before 2 months of age sometimes you can avoid the general anesthesia if you wrap them tight enough. But once they get over 2 months ,there’s too much wiggle and it’s pretty impossible.”

Her other suggestions:

  • Consider delaying nonurgent surgeries and imaging until at least age 6 months and ideally 3 years. “Parents will eventually want surgery to be done for a benign-appearing congenital nevus on the cheek, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be done before 6 months. The same with a residual hemangioma. I would recommend doing it before they go to kindergarten and before they get a sort of sense of what their self looks like, but you have some time between ages 3 and 5 to do that,” Dr. Sprague said.
  • Seek out an anesthesiologist who has extensive experience with infants and young children, as is common at a dedicated children’s hospital. “If you live somewhere where the anesthesiologists are primarily seeing adult patients, they’re just not as good,” according to the pediatric dermatologist.
  • Definitely consider a topical anesthesia strategy in infants who require multiple procedures, because there remains some unresolved concern about the potential neurodevelopmental impact of multiple bouts of general anesthesia.

Dr. Sprague reported having no financial conflicts regarding her presentation.

The SDEF/Global Academy for Medical Education and this news organization are owned by the same parent company.

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