Background: In experimental animal studies, exposure to general anesthesia in early childhood may results in changes in infant brain morphology and behavior, potentially leading to the development of autistic behaviors in the long-term. However, in clinical studies the role of exposure to general anesthesia in early childhood and the risk of autism is unknown.
Methods: This is a population-based cohort study including all children aged 0-5 years of age exposed to general anesthesia between 2001 and 2014 and a corresponding matched population without such an exposure. Propensity score calculation was based on 49 variables (including age of parents, malformations, APGAR score, and family income, among others). Quasi-Poisson regression was used to estimate risk ratios (RRs) with 95% confidence intervals (CIs) for the association between exposure to general anesthesia and autism or autism spectrum disorder.
Results: In total, 401,750 children exposed to general anesthesia were compared with 1,187,796 unexposed individuals. Autism or autism spectrum disorder were more common in the children exposed to general anesthesia as compared to unexposed children (1.65% and 0.98%, respectively, p < 0.01). There was a statistically significant higher risk of autism or autism spectrum disorder in children exposed to general anesthesia as compared to unexposed children also after propensity score adjustment (RR 1.62, 95% CI: 1.57-1.67).
Conclusions: In conclusion, exposure to general anesthesia in early childhood was associated with an increased risk of autism or autism spectrum disorder. Future studies are needed to asses if general anesthesia may cause autism or if the association is due to other factors.