Babies feel pain 'like adults'

A study using MRI to look inside babies' brains has found they feel pain in the same way as adults.

The Wellcome Trust-funded study investigated new-born babies' response to a pain stimulus, with the results suggesting we need to review clinical guidelines for the pain management of young infants.

University of Oxford researchers used a special retracting rod to very gently ‘poke’ ten healthy babies on the bottom of their feet whilst they were positioned in MRI scanners. Ten healthy adults were also exposed to the same pain stimulus that was four times stronger.

By comparing the brain scans of the adults and babies, researchers found that 18 of the 20 'pain' regions that activate in an adult brain are also active in the brains of the babies. These findings go some way to advancing our understanding of how babies feel pain, suggesting that they may actually have a much lower pain threshold than adults.

"Up until recently people didn’t think it was possible to study pain in babies using MRI because, unlike adults, they don’t keep still in the scanner!" said Wellcome Trust Career Development Fellow Dr Rebeccah Slater. "However, as babies that are less than a week old are more docile than older babies, we found that their parents were able to get them to fall asleep inside a scanner so that we could study pain in the infant brain using MRI."

With babies unable to tell us what they are feeling, the research provides the first strong evidence of a baby’s experience of pain and how we should look to manage it.

"Thousands of babies across the UK undergo painful procedures every day but there are often no local pain management guidelines to help clinicians. Our study suggests that not only do babies experience pain but they may be more sensitive to it than adults," said Dr Slater. "We have to think that if we would provide pain relief for an older child undergoing a procedure then we should look at giving pain relief to an infant undergoing a similar procedure."

Science Portfolio Advisor, Raliza Stoyanova said: "This excellent study brings together developmental neuroscience and cutting-edge neuroimaging to advance our understanding of pain. The finding that similar brain networks are activated in babies exposed to pain stimuli, as those found in adults, suggests that babies may feel pain in a similar way and that we may need to re-think clinical guidelines for infants undergoing potentially painful procedures."

The research was originally published in eLife.