New Research Provides Link between Anesthesia, Cognitive Dysfunction, and ADHD

Researchers have discovered a possible link between anesthesia and ADHD. According to a new study, young children and infants who receive anesthesia may be at a greater risk of developing learning disabilities and cognitive impairment than children who do not receive anesthesia. The evidence was presented at the SmartTots: Pediatric Anesthesia Neurotoxicity panel at the International Anesthesia Research Society annual meeting in Vancouver, B.C. “We want to impress upon people that there is a very reliable link between the animal and human data that is rapidly emerging,” said panel moderator Dr. Vesna Jevtovic-Todorovic, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A., Professor of Anesthesiology and Neuroscience at the University of Virginia Health System and SmartTots Scientific Advisory Board member.

Studies that have been conducted on animal primates have raised valid questions about the safety and implications of anesthesia on the developing brain. Merle Paule, Ph.D., Director of Division of Neurotoxicology at the National Center for Toxicological Research and SmartTots Scientific Advisory Board member, said that these findings clearly show the effect of anesthesia on brain development and the negative impact it can have on brain functioning.

“Very clearly, the studies done by the folks at the National Center for Toxicological Research are extremely important. They can’t be overrated because they show in a species similar to humans that there is an effect not only on the pathology in the brain, but also in behavior. And that effect is a lasting effect,” said Randall Flick, M.D., M.P.H., Associate Professor of Anesthesiology and Pediatrics at the Mayo Clinic, and the Society for Pediatric Anesthesia representative on the SmartTots Affiliate Advisory Council. The study, conducted on children ages four years and younger, examined the effects of anesthesia exposure and determined that those who received anesthesia for at least two hours, on two separate occasions, were at a higher risk for cognitive impairment.

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • eliza


    May 31st, 2011 at 3:19 PM

    I think that doctors would only use anesthesia as a last resort in children so young. With studies like this I happen to feel like it could cause some parents to make decisions that they think will be in the best interests for their kids down the road but will not be thinking about the short term. They need to think about the procedure that could be saving their child’s life today and worry about the rest later on.

  • Holly


    May 31st, 2011 at 11:59 PM

    While I don’t think this is too big of an issue, kids that have surgeries or require anesthesia early in their childhood need to watch out!

  • Jacob F

    Jacob F

    June 1st, 2011 at 3:30 AM

    I would be interested to know-How many kids under the age of four are actually administered anesthesia? Because if the numbers are not negligible then we will seriously have to think up alternatives.

    On a side note-What about dental anesthesia for pre-teens?

  • C.N. Green

    C.N. Green

    June 1st, 2011 at 8:29 AM

    I hope they research if this has any connection with the autism epidemic too. Many of the ADHD traits are similar to some autistic traits.

    I’m wondering if this applies to children that receive anesthesia as part of their birth. I had an emergency C-section when my son was born and I was under full anesthesia. He’s on the autistic spectrum.

  • Dr. Keith

    Dr. Keith

    June 2nd, 2011 at 4:27 AM

    @ Jacob F- I am an oral surgeon and we perform surgery all of the time on teens and younger that requires anesthesia, but ours is of the twilight variety. It is a nice little sleep, but you are aware enough that if I needed you to open your mouth a little wider for example, you would be able to do that for me. I definitely do not think that this should be an across the board conclusion that all anesthesia is bad.



    June 2nd, 2011 at 2:38 PM

    I’ve read of a few cases wherein even adults have had ‘side-effects’ due to anesthesia.So to see that it could be harmful to kids is not a surprise at all.I just hope we are able to find a solution to this-maybe an alternative that is child-friendly?



    June 3rd, 2011 at 4:46 AM

    Any time we administer drugs of this magnititude to someone so young, there should be some concern yes? But I have to believe that there has been some very knowledgeable research in this are, and quite frankly sometimes anesthesia is unavoidable. Not everything should always be about the worst case scenario. There are concerns and things that parents should know about, but think about the alternative. Yeah anesthesia can sound better and better when you put it like that.

  • Nicholas Greene

    Nicholas Greene

    June 4th, 2011 at 2:08 PM

    You’re pumping a developing infant full of drugs that instantly knocks them out and makes them impervious to pain in the process.

    Of course it’ll have an effect of some sort, but I didn’t expect it to be of such a long-lasting and permanent caliber.

  • Ty Carey

    Ty Carey

    June 5th, 2011 at 1:51 PM

    But is there really any alternative to anesthesia? You can hardly perform surgery without some form of anesthetic on a human being unless you want be the subject of a very large lawsuit.

    The shock alone could kill them. So what can they do instead? The days of having to bite down on a leather belt like in the old Westerns are over.

  • nikki wilson

    nikki wilson

    June 5th, 2011 at 2:54 PM

    @Ty Carey–Short answer to is there really an alternative: No.

    Don’t even think about doping them up instead with morphine to deaden the pain and not giving any anesthetic. Even though morphine is a very powerful painkiller, it’s also very addictive and it could have its own effects on a developing brain.

    We’re going to have to simply deal with this the best we can. There is no alternative to giving an anesthetic.

  • Bridget Fallon

    Bridget Fallon

    June 9th, 2011 at 1:23 AM

    @nikki wilson: So we have a choice between letting our children suffer extreme pain, not undergoing surgery at all, or risking mental retardation? Not good news at all.

  • N. Solomon

    N. Solomon

    June 11th, 2011 at 9:16 PM

    Actually, I’m very surprised this has never been brought up before when patients go under the knife every single day. The amount of damage might actually be completely negligible and only in very isolated cases. The odds of impairment are already low.

    You have to weigh the pros and cons. If they need surgery they are usually in a life-threatening situation which makes the choice, between certain death without surgery or the chance of impairment with it, a heck of a lot easier.

  • Iain Gray

    Iain Gray

    February 27th, 2012 at 2:28 AM

    I am a very seriously affected bipolar sufferer-although my hypomanic episode was triggered by champix and zyban I believe my underlying vulnerability relates back to general anaesthesia for tooth extractions at the age of about 5 (I might even have ben a bit younger)-anyone else perceive this??

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Title   Content   Author is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on