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Dementia and Anesthesia—A Worrisome Relationship

Nov 12, 2014 02:00PM ● By Cate Reynolds
According to an October article in Scientific American, “Most evidence suggests that receiving general anesthesia during the course of surgery does not increase the likelihood of developing lasting dementia. Yet it is clear that something is going on: Recent experiments on animals and human cells show that anesthesia can increase the buildup of the proteins thought to underlie Alzheimer’s disease, especially in high doses.”

The article goes on to define general anesthesia as “typically inhaled” rendering the patient unconscious. Even in today’s high-tech world, how anesthesia works isn’t completely understood. “Because anesthesia affects so many diverse brain processes and areas, some researchers worry that it may have unforeseen consequences.

“Recent research on animals has also shown that anesthesia can induce brain changes like those thought to underlie dementia.” In 2004 and 2007 studies, scientists found that exposing mice to inhaled anesthetics, especially in high doses, accelerated the buildup and toxicity of amyloid beta, a protein implicated in the development of Alzheimer’s. Other studies have shown similar effects with tau, another Alzheimer’s-linked protein.

Considering the traumatic nature of surgery, some scientists believe neuro-inflammation from surgery rather than the anesthesia is the true culprit in cognitive decline. “We don’t think that anesthesia and surgery actually cause Alzheimer’s or cause dementia,” Roderic Eckenhoff, an anesthesiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told Scientific American. “We think that it interacts with individual vulnerabilities where if you’re already predisposed to getting something like this, this speeds it up.”

--Sarah Hagerty
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