Among more than 700 infants in seven countries, the researchers didn't find any measurable neurodevelopmental or behavioral problems up to the age of 5.
"Nearly half the general anesthetics given to infants are used for less than one hour. Therefore, our findings should reassure health professionals and the millions of parents whose young children undergo surgical or diagnostic procedures with anesthetic drugs worldwide every year," said researcher Andrew Davidson, from Murdoch Children's Research Institute in Australia.
The study authors noted that most of the infants in the study group were male and more research is needed to confirm the findings in girls.
In the first three years of life, about one in 10 children in developed countries have surgical, medical and diagnostic procedures where a general anesthetic is used. These procedures can include hernia repair, tonsillectomy, imaging scans and endoscopies.
For years, the safety of giving infants a general anesthetic has been debated. In 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned that prolonged or repeated anesthesia in children younger than 3 years of age might affect brain development, the researchers noted.
This caution, however, was based on animal studies, and research in humans has been limited.
For the latest study, researchers randomly assigned 722 infants having operations to either general anesthesia or local anesthesia.
Earlier interim results found no significant difference at age 2 in mental development, regardless of which type of anesthesia was used.
Now, the five-year results show no significant difference in IQ scores between the children given general anesthesia or a local anesthetic. Also, no significant differences were seen in other tests of mental function, the researchers reported.
But development at the age of 5 may be too early to find if some social and emotional skills, which develop later in life, are impaired, the study authors said.
The study was published Feb. 14 in The Lancet.
Commenting on the findings, Dr. James O'Leary, from the University of Toronto, said contributing factors other than general anesthesia, such as type of surgery and sex, should be considered when interpreting these findings.
"Perhaps most importantly, the study results cannot be extrapolated to children who undergo prolonged or repeated exposures to general anesthesia or receive multiple anesthetic drugs for the same surgical procedure," O'Leary said in a journal news release. "Whether anesthesia causes neurological injury in patients under these conditions remains to be established."
Stanford University has more on infants and anesthesia.
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