Breakthrough Study on the Brain Shows Newborns Experience Pain Like Adults

Genevieve Plaster, M.A.  

This week, an innovative study conducted by an Oxford University team revealed that newborn infants experience pain like adults. The researchers compared newborn and adult brain scans taken after administering mild pencil point-like pricks on the soles of the participants’ feet. The results showed that 18 of the 20 examined brain regions which were active in adults feeling pain were also active for the newborns. The study also found one major difference, though – the newborns were much more sensitive to pain than the adults.


(Photo by “Inferis” 2006/Wikimedia Commons)


The results of this study by Goksan et al. are significant since an extensive understanding of neonatal pain processing has remained somewhat elusive even today. According to the report, a lack of understanding of the newborn’s pain capability still sometimes results in inadequate medical protocols to manage infants’ pain. Additionally, the study validates previous research which demonstrates that babies in utero have the brain structures in place to feel pain.


In the study entitled “fMRI reveals neural activity overlap between adult and infant pain,” the brain scans of 10 healthy newborns younger than seven days old and 10 healthy adults between 23 and 36 years old were captured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology. The scans recorded changes in blood oxygen levels in the participants’ brains as they were “poked” on the bottom of their feet by special retracting rods mild enough not to wake sleeping babies.


According to the study, the overlap of brain activity in the neonates and adults suggests that “infant pain experience closely resembles that seen in adults.” Lead study author, Dr. Rebeccah Slater of Oxford University’s Department of Paediatrics, says of her findings:


“This is particularly important when it comes to pain: Obviously babies can’t tell us about their experience of pain and it is difficult to infer pain from visual observations. 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.”


Dr. Slater also said, “Our study suggests that not only do babies experience pain but they may be more sensitive to it than adults.”


The new findings validate current evidence on the development of the fetal brain and the presence of structures that allow experiencing pain.


Another study conducted in 2013 by Moriah Thomason et al. used the same fMRI technology to examine brain activity of babies still in the womb between 24 and 38 weeks of gestation. Thomason saw that the fetal brain was developed enough halfway through pregnancy so that “about half of the bilateral functional systems of the brain are present to a significant degree” and that the remaining areas were also present, but “in more nascent stages.


Dr. Slater’s study also validates recent research regarding the hyper-sensitivity to pain experienced in both premature and unborn babies. A similar study in 2010 that examined pain responses of premature babies after heel sticks noted: “Of note, the earlier infants are delivered, the stronger their response to pain.”


And in Congressional testimony in 2004, Dr. Kanwaljeet Sunny Anand – known for effectively changing standard medical practice regarding administering anesthesia before neonatal surgery – said:


“Mechanisms that inhibit or moderate the experience of pain do not begin to develop until 32 to 34 weeks post-fertilization. Any pain the unborn child experiences before these pain inhibitors are in place is likely more intense than the pain an older infant or adult experiences when subjected to similar types of injury.” (Emphasis added.)


More recently, a Cambridge University Press medical textbook published this year to prepare students for board examinations includes a clear statement on fetal pain: “The fetus…becomes capable of experiencing pain between 20 and 30 weeks of gestation.”


Whereas it used to be common practice as late as the 1980s not to administer anesthesia to infants undergoing surgery, thanks to research it’s now standard medical practice to give fetal anesthesia to unborn babies undergoing painful fetal surgery.


Dr. Slater’s team at the University of Oxford have performed a service to the world by contributing more evidence to the overall understanding of the development of the human brain and its ability to process pain. Since science shows that newborns, as well as unborn babies by the halfway mark in pregnancy, feel pain more intensely than adults – and since medical practice already strives to protect these babies from feeling pain during operations – is it not reasonable and compassionate to protect unborn babies from abortion and its horrifying pain at the very least by this point in life?


Genevieve Plaster is a research assistant for the Charlotte Lozier Institute.




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