If your young child is facing ear tubes, an MRI or even extensive dental work, you’ve probably got a lot of concerns. One of them may be about whether the drugs used to render your child briefly unconscious can permanently harm his brain. Here’s the frustrating answer: No one knows.
“It’s a tough conundrum for parents of kids who need procedures,” says pediatric anesthesiologist Mary Ellen McCann, a pediatric anesthesiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Everything has risks and benefits,” but in this case, the decision to go ahead with surgery is made more difficult by an incomplete understanding of anesthesia’s risks for babies and young children. Some studies suggest that single, short exposures to anesthesia aren’t dangerous. Still, scientists and doctors say that we desperately need more data before we really understand what anesthesia does to developing brains.
It helps to know this nonanswer comes with a lot of baggage, a sign that a lot of very smart and committed people are trying to answer the question. In December, the FDA issued a drug safety communication about anesthetics that sounded alarming, beginning with a warning that “repeated or lengthy use of general anesthetic and sedation drugs during surgeries or procedures in children younger than 3 years or in pregnant women during their third trimester may affect the development of children’s brains.” FDA recommended more conversations between parents and doctors, in the hopes of delaying surgeries that can safely wait, and the amount of anesthesia exposure in this potentially vulnerable population.