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Yerkes Researchers Find Multiple Exposures to Anesthesia During Infancy Impair Visual Recognition Memory

June 1, 2017

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Lisa Newbern, 404-727-7709,

Yerkes National Primate Research Center researchers and their colleagues at Mt. Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine have found repeated exposure of infant monkeys to a common anesthetic, sevoflurane, impairs visual recognition memory after the first year of life and that the impairment may persist long term. The study results, which are published online in the British Journal of Anaesthesia, provide important information related to the safety of early life anesthesia exposure.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), approximately one million children under the age of four annually undergo surgery with general anesthesia. This makes better understanding the effects of early life exposure to anesthesia critical.

Maria Alvarado, PhD, first author and leader of the Yerkes team, says, “Animal studies have shown exposure to general anesthesia in infancy can cause loss of cells in the central nervous system and long-term impairments in neurocognitive function.” She adds this finding is consistent with human epidemiological studies that have shown children who undergo more than one operation under general anesthesia before they are four years old are at a greater risk of learning disabilities and other cognitive impairments. These concerns may only become evident when children begin formal schooling. 

Co-author Mark Baxter, PhD, of Mt. Sinai says this study is particularly important because it removed variables for surgical procedures, so the team was able to focus specifically on the side effects of anesthesia. The team is now conducting research to further clarify the extent and duration of these anesthesia-induced impairments.

“Our studies with rhesus monkeys are fundamental to making anesthesia exposure in infancy and childhood as safe as possible,” Alvarado continues.

The National Institutes of Health National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and Office of the Director, Office of Research Infrastructure Programs (P51OD11132) supported this research.

Established in 1930, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center is a leader among the seven National Institutes of Health-funded National Primate Research Centers (NPRCs), a resource to researchers worldwide, a source of inspiration for scientific leaders of tomorrow and a provider of and advocate for quality animal care. For more than eight decades, the Yerkes Research Center has been dedicated to discovering causes, preventions, treatments and cures that will help people across generations and the world live longer, healthier lives. Today, the Yerkes Research Center is making breakthrough discoveries with our research, which is grounded in scientific integrity, expert knowledge, respect for colleagues, an open exchange of ideas and compassionate, quality animal care

In the fields of microbiology and immunology, infectious diseases, pharmacology and drug discovery, transplantation, neurologic and psychiatric diseases, as well as behavioral, cognitive and developmental neuroscience, the basic science researchers conduct at Yerkes advances vaccine development for infectious and non-infectious diseases, paves the way for earlier diagnosis of and new treatments for life-changing illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's diseases, defines the basic neurobiology and genetics of social behavior to support developing new therapies for autism spectrum and other disorders as well as drug addiction, and teaches us how interactions between genetics and the environment shape who we are.

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The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service. Its components include the Emory University School of Medicine, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, and Rollins School of Public Health; Yerkes National Primate Research Center; Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University; and Emory Healthcare, the largest, most comprehensive health system in Georgia. Emory Healthcare includes: The Emory Clinic, Emory-Children's Center, Emory University Hospital, Emory University Hospital Midtown, Wesley Woods Center, and Emory University Orthopaedics & Spine Hospital. The Woodruff Health Sciences Center has a $2.5 billion budget, 17,600 employees, 2,500 full-time and 1,500 affiliated faculty, 4,700 students and trainees, and a $5.7 billion economic impact on metro Atlanta.

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