NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 14, 2006

Premature babies may be aware of pain in much the same way as older children and adults, according to a British study published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Indeed, the experience of pain requires higher-level activity in the brain's cortex, and by using a device that measures blood flow in the brain, researchers showed that even in the most premature babies, they process pain in the cortex, just as in adults.

The researchers tested 18 infants born after gestation periods ranging from 25 to 45 weeks, placing sensors on the head to record brain blood flow during heel lancing for a blood sample.

  • They found that even in the most premature babies (normal gestation is 38 to 42 weeks), cortical blood flow was detected.
  • Non-painful tactile stimulation, like tickling of the bottom of the foot, did not evoke a change in cortical blood flow.

Despite the identical brain activity, differences remain in the ways babies and older children experience pain, says Maria Fitzgerald, the study's senior author:

  • Older children have a much greater emotional and cognitive understanding of pain, and therefore have associated anxiety.
  • The youngest babies have a pure sensory response, but perhaps interpret and analyze pain in different ways.

Source: Nicholas Bakalar, "Even Tiny Babies Have Ouch Centers in the Brain," New York Times, April 11, 2006.

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