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Animal Tests Show Anesthetics May Harm Baby Brains

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Commonly used anaesthetics may be causing brain damage in people, especially babies who receive them while their brains are still developing.

Associate Professor Andrew Davidson, an anaesthetist at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, said there was mounting evidence in animals that a range of anaesthetics used on humans were toxic for the brain and could cause lasting damage, including learning and memory difficulties.

He said recently published studies of five-day-old monkeys showed that when they were given ketamine, an anaesthetic commonly used in hospitals, the drug caused some of their brain cells to die. When these monkeys were assessed at two and three years of age, they had significant learning deficits. Advertisement: Story continues below

There was also evidence that propofol, midazolam, isoflurane, desflurane and sevoflurane - all commonly used drugs in humans - caused rats' brain cells to die, affecting their ability to complete simple tasks.

Professor Davidson said large studies of children who had received anaesthetics as babies were under way to see if the animal findings could be validated.