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Study: Autism not linked to general anesthesia in young children

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Neurodevelopmental disorders (problems with learning, memory, and cognitive ability) in newborn animals have been associated with undergoing surgery with general anesthesia. Studies in young humans on the issue have been “inconsistent,” though, according to the authors of a new study specifically looking at the risk of autism in young children who had undergone general anesthesia.

The researchers chose to look for autism, because it “is typically recognized earlier than other neurobehavioural disorders,” the authors write. “Although certain genes apparently contribute to autistic disorder susceptibility, other factors such as perinatal insults and exposure to neurotoxic agents may play a crucial role in gene-environmental interaction.”

The researchers note further that they “hypothesized that exposure to general anesthesia and surgery before two years of age [may be] associated with an increased risk of developing autistic disorder.”

Researchers from two medical universities obtained and analyzed data from the National Health Insurance Research Database of Taiwan from 2001 to 2010. A birth cohort of 114,435 children (5,197 had undergone general anesthesia and surgery) under the age of two were evaluated. This group of children was compared to 20,788 “matched controls,” or children in similar situations (socioeconomic, health, etc.) who had not undergone anesthesia or surgery.

Researchers investigated how many of the children had ended up with autism after undergoing anesthesia and surgery.
They found no differences in the incidence of autistic disorder between the group from the database and the matched control group in terms of autism incidence. Additionally, the child’s age at first exposure to anesthesia did not have an effect on the risk of autism, and there was no relationship between the total number of exposures and autism risk.

“Exposure to general anesthesia and surgery before two years of age at first exposure and number of exposures were not associated with the development of autistic disorder,” the authors conclude.