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March 10, 2011

Growing evidence of adverse effects of anesthesia on the growing brains of children has prompted investigation by the government.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) held a panel today to discuss anesthesia use during surgery on young children and the mounting evidence that anesthetic medications cause death of brain cells resulting in neurological problems such as learning disabilities, cognitive and behavioral problems, reports The New York Times.

The FDA has yet to release results of the panel.

More than one million U.S. children have surgical procedures requiring anesthesia each year and children under four years of age may be especially vulnerable to neurological injury from anesthesia, according to the FDA.

Doctors from the FDA published concerns about results of animal studies and a lack of knowledge about effects of these drugs on human children in The New England Journal of Medicine article entitled Defining Safe Use of Anesthesia in Children.

Studies of young animals, including non-human primates, exposed to commonly used anesthetics in stages of brain development caused neurologic problems including lesions in the brain, behavioral problems and developmental problems later in life.

“A growing body of data from studies in animals suggests that under certain circumstances, such as prolonged anesthesia, these drugs could adversely affect neurologic, cognitive, and social development of neonates and young children,” Doctors from the FDA’s Division of Anesthesia and Analgesia Products said in the NEJM article. “We believe that these findings should be of concern to the scientific and medical communities.”

Earlier this month, the FDA announced the agency’s partnership with the International Anesthesia Research Society (IARS) in a program called Strategies for Mitigating Anesthesia-Related Neuro-Toxicity in Tots, called SmartTots, to coordinate and fund research on the risks of anesthesia use in children and develop safer child anesthesia practices.

Watch the FDA video announcement

“Every time you get anesthesia during surgery, there’s a risk. But there may be a special risk for children under four,” said Dr. Michael Roizen, leader of the Executive Board of SmartTots, in an FDA release. “SmartTots will allow us to learn how to give anesthesia and perform surgery safely on children under the age of four.” IARS is a research-based organization dedicated to advancing the scientific basis for anesthesia practice.

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