The effect of chronic or intermittent hypoxia on cognition in childhood: a review of the evidence

Pediatrics. 2004 Sep;114(3):805-16. doi: 10.1542/peds.2004-0227.


Objective: A review of the evidence concerning the effect of chronic or intermittent hypoxia on cognition in childhood was performed by using both a systematic review of the literature and critical appraisal criteria of causality. Because of the significant impact of behavioral disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder on certain cognitive functions as well as academic achievement, the review also included articles that addressed behavioral outcomes.

Methods: Both direct and indirect evidence were collected. A structured Medline search was conducted from the years 1966-2000 by using the OVID interface. Both English- and non-English-language citations were included. Significant articles identified by the reviewers up to 2003 were also included. To be included as direct evidence, an article needed to be an original report in a peer-reviewed journal with data on cognitive, behavioral, or academic outcomes in children up to 14 years old, with clinical conditions likely to be associated with exposure to chronic or intermittent hypoxia. Indirect evidence from other reviews and publications in closely related fields, including experimental studies in adults, was used to help formulate conclusions. Two reviewers screened abstracts and titles. Each article included as direct evidence received a structured evaluation by 2 reviewers. Adjudication of differences was performed by a group of 2 reviewers and a research consultant. After this review, tables of evidence were constructed that were used as the basis for group discussion and consensus development. Indirect evidence assigned by topic to specific reviewers was also presented as part of this process. A formal procedure was used to rank the studies by design strength. The critical appraisal criteria for causation described in Evidence Based Pediatrics and Child Health (Moyer V, Elliott E, Davis R, et al, eds. London, United Kingdom: BMJ Books; 2000:46-55) were used to develop consensus on causality.

Results: A total of 788 literature citations were screened. For the final analysis, 55 articles met the criteria for inclusion in the direct evidence. Of these, 43 (78.2%) reported an adverse effect. Of the 37 controlled studies, 31 (83.8%) reported an adverse effect. Adverse effects were noted at every level of arterial oxygen saturation and for exposure at every age level except for premature newborns. The studies were classified into 5 clinical categories: congenital heart disease (CHD), sleep-disordered breathing (SDB), asthma, chronic ventilatory impairment, and respiratory instability in infants. Two of these categories, CHD and SDB, which accounted for 42 (76.4%) of the included articles, fulfilled the Evidence Based Pediatrics and Child Health criteria for causation. The indirect evidence included 8 reviews, 1 meta-analysis, and 10 original reports covering the fields of adult anoxia, animal research, SDB in adults, natural and experimental high-altitude studies, perinatal hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, anemia, and carbon-monoxide poisoning. The studies of high-altitude and carbon-monoxide poisoning provided evidence for causality.

Conclusions: Adverse impacts of chronic or intermittent hypoxia on development, behavior, and academic achievement have been reported in many well-designed and controlled studies in children with CHD and SDB as well as in a variety of experimental studies in adults. This should be taken into account in any situation that may expose children to hypoxia. Because adverse effects have been noted at even mild levels of oxygen desaturation, future research should include precisely defined data on exposure to all levels of desaturation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / etiology*
  • Causality
  • Child
  • Chronic Disease
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology*
  • Developmental Disabilities / etiology*
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia / complications
  • Hypoxia / psychology*
  • Infant
  • Intelligence / physiology*
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Sleep Apnea Syndromes / complications*


  • Oxygen