Brain research: Premature babies feel pain

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Brain research: Premature babies feel pain
Brain research: Premature babies feel pain

Premature babies feel pain

Various routine procedures in day-to-day care trigger activity in preterm infants in brain regions that are associated with pain perception in adults. Maria Fitzgerald from University College London and her colleagues conclude that the little ones actually feel and process pain. Until now, many doctors and researchers have taken the tiny creatures' physical reactions to be reflexes.

Fitzgerald's scientists used infrared spectroscopy to examine 18 preterm infants before, during and after a heel prick and discovered an increase in blood flow and oxygen levels in the somatosensory cortex, a well-known pain-processing brain region. The older the children got, the more sensitive they became.

It was disputed whether premature babies felt pain like adults, since the corresponding nerve networks only form relatively late in the embryonic development – from the 23rd week onwards. Although the little ones showed physiological, physical and metabolic reactions, it was not clear whether the stimuli were actually processed at a higher level. This is the first direct evidence of this, explains Fitzgerald. Therefore, pain management must be included in the everyday care of premature babies, who have to endure painful examinations several times a day. The researcher concludes that there is also a risk that the experience of pain will impair the brain development that has not yet been completed.

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