What are the potential effects of anesthetics given during childhood?

Mounting evidence from animal studies shows that anesthetic exposure in early life leads to apoptosis in the developing nervous system. This loss of neurons has functional consequences in adulthood. Clinical retrospective reviews have suggested that multiple anesthetic exposures in early childhood are associated with learning disabilities later in life as well. Despite much concern about this phenomenon, little is known about the mechanism by which anesthetics initiate neuronal cell death.

Studies have been conducted using caenorhabditis elegans, a nematode (roundworm). Nematodes provide a powerful genetic animal model, with precisely characterized neural development and cell death pathways; they affords an excellent opportunity to study anesthetic-induced neurotoxicity. In one study, researchers hypothesized that exposing the nematode to volatile anesthetics early in life would induce neuron cell death, producing a behavioral defect that would be manifested in adulthood.

The results from this study indicated that anesthetics affect neurobehavior in nematodes, extending the range of phyla in which early exposure to volatile anesthetics has been shown to cause functional neurological deficits. This implies that anesthetic-induced neurotoxicity occurs via an ancient underlying mechanism." (Katherine R. Gentry, MD, et al., "Early Developmental Exposure to Volatile Anesthetics Causes Behavioral Defects in Caenorhabditis elegans," Anesthesia & Analgesia, January 2013, pp. 185-189.)

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