MRI Scans Show Babies Are More Sensitive To Pain Than Adults

MRI Scans Show Babies Are More Sensitive To Pain Than Adults

Whether babies can feel pain has long been a subject of debate in the medical profession, but a new study has found that newborns do feel pain more strongly than adults.

Researchers from Oxford University have used brain scans to show that babies' brains react to mild pain in much the same way as adults.

Lead author of the report, Dr Rebeccah Slater from Oxford University's paediatrics department, explained why the findings are "particularly important":

"Obviously babies can’t tell us about their experience of pain and it is difficult to infer pain from visual observations," she said.

"In fact some people have argued that babies' brains are not developed enough for them to really 'feel' pain, any reaction being just a reflex – our study provides the first really strong evidence that this is not the case."

The study involved 10 healthy babies aged between one and six days old, and 10 healthy adults aged 23-36 years.

The babies were placed in a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner where they usually fell asleep.

MRI scans were then taken of the babies' brains as they were poked on the bottom of their feet with a retracting rod creating a sensation "like being poked with a pencil" – mild enough that it did not wake them up.

These scans were then compared with brain scans of adults exposed to the same pain stimulus.

MRI giving a comparison of brain activity in adults and babies when poked with a special retracting rod. Red-yellow areas represent active brain regions.

The researchers say it is possible to see pain 'happening' inside the infant brain and it looks a lot like pain in adults - as 18 of the 20 brain regions active in adults experiencing pain were active in babies.

The scans also showed that babies’ brains had the same response to a weak poke as adults did to a stimulus four times as strong.

Rachel Edwards, 33, from Oxford, gave permission for her son Alex to take part in the study.

Rachel Edwards and her son Alex.

"Before Alex went in I got to feel all the things he would feel as part of the study including the pencil-like retracting rod: it wasn't particularly painful, it was more of a precise feeling of touch," she said.

"He didn't wake up during the scanning and seemed really content afterwards.

"People know so little about how babies feel pain, you can tell they are in distress from their reaction and I was curious about why they react in the way they do."

Last year a review of neonatal pain management practice in intensive care found that although such infants experience an average of 11 painful procedures per day 60% of babies do not receive any kind of pain medication.

"Thousands of babies across the UK undergo painful procedures every day but there are often no local pain management guidelines to help clinicians," added 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."

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