Baby MRIs show prolonged anesthesia may cause brain atrophy

Parents may start to reconsider treatment options when it comes to the effects of anesthesia on their children. A new study from Harvard Boston Children's Hospital of MRIs of babies exposed to prolonged sedation during surgery showed a higher risk for developing brain abnormalities.

These preliminary, unpublished findings were reported at this year's Society for Neuroscience (SfN) annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Specially, this study targeted infants whose surgery was to repair gastrointestinal congenital abnormalities, according to Dusica Bajic, MD, PhD, with Boston Children's Hospital and an assistant professor of anesthesiology at Harvard Medical School, and colleagues. 

"Our preliminary findings suggest that children who have prolonged sedation during surgery have more signs of brain atrophy," Bajic said in an SfN press briefing.

The researchers studied nine infants, all of whom had experienced prolonged sedation during surgery. Researchers also took into consideration prematurity or heart problems as possible causes of brain abnormalities.

According to study results, MRI brain scans of all nine infants showed increased fluid in and around the brain, increased space between the lobes, and a thinning of white matter tracts connecting the two brain hemispheres. In addition, clinically significant findings included old venous hemorrhagic strokes and subdural hematoma.

There was a 4 percent greater proportion of fluid around the brain causing slow brain growth, although Bajic and her team observed an eventual increase in total brain volume.

"It's a good sign," Bajic said in a statement. "It means that even despite prolonged sedation, the brain continues to grow."

Additional analysis includes:

  • A positive correlation between hours of anesthesia exposure and total number of MRI findings.
  • A positive correlation between length of sedation and number of findings in regard to the use of morphine and midazolam.

Bajic insists that continued research analyzing a larger pool of infants is greatly needed. Additionally, she advises that future studies should conduct a brain MRI scan before the infant is exposed to anesthesia and take parenteral nutrition and neuroplasticity into account previously.