Brief review: anesthetic neurotoxicity in the elderly, cognitive dysfunction and Alzheimer's disease

Can J Anaesth. 2011 Feb;58(2):216-23. doi: 10.1007/s12630-010-9418-x. Epub 2010 Dec 21.


Purpose: Postoperative cognitive decline in the elderly has emerged as a major health concern. In addition, there is a growing interest in the potential relationship between general anesthetic exposure and the onset and progression of Alzheimer's disease (AD). The available evidence of a possible association between anesthesia, surgery, and long-term cognitive effects, including AD, deserves consideration. In this review, we summarize the evidence for anesthesia-induced neurotoxicity in the elderly, while highlighting the limitations of existing data, and we put the literature into perspective for the clinician.

Principal findings: A growing body of evidence suggests that general anesthetics may be neurotoxic to both young and aging brains. Much of the evidence originates from in vitro and in vivo studies with cells, rodents, and nonhuman primates. Despite the animal data suggesting a relationship between anesthesia and neurotoxicity in the elderly, a definitive link remains elusive in humans.

Conclusions: The possible relation between anesthetic neurotoxicity, postoperative cognitive dysfunction, and AD remains elusive. It remains unclear whether postoperative cognitive decline in the elderly is related more to perioperative stress and related medical co-morbidities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Alzheimer Disease / etiology
  • Alzheimer Disease / physiopathology
  • Anesthetics, General / adverse effects*
  • Animals
  • Cognition Disorders / chemically induced
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology*
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Disease Progression
  • Humans
  • Neurotoxicity Syndromes / etiology*
  • Postoperative Complications / etiology
  • Species Specificity


  • Anesthetics, General