Surprising Study Finds That Babies Feel Pain Like Adults

04/23/2015 12:25 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015
Getty Images

Many doctors believe babies' brains are not developed enough to feel pain, but a surprising new study suggests this may not be the case.

According to provocative new Oxford University research, days-old infants experience pain like adults do. Using MRI scans, the researchers saw infant brains "light up" in a similar manner to adult brains upon being exposed to mild pain.

This is troubling. Although infants experience an average of 11 painful procedures per day, 60 percent do not receive any pharmacological analgesia, according to a recent review of neonatal pain management practice in intensive care.

The new understanding of infant pain processing has some significant implications. For one, it suggests clinical guidelines for infants undergoing painful procedures should be revisited.

"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," the study's lead author, Oxford pediatrician Dr. Rebeccah Slater, said in a statement.

Dr. Annett Schirmer, a pain researcher at the National University of Singapore, echoed the sentiment.

"This makes a lot of sense because an infant needs to withdraw from a damaging (and hence) painful stimulus just as much as an adult," Schirmer told The Huffington Post in an email.

For the study, the researchers recruited 10 healthy infants who were between one and six days old and 10 healthy adults between the ages of 23 and 36. The babies were put in an MRI scanner and poked on the foot. Then, the adult participants were put in the MRI machine and poked on the foot (only in their case, four times harder).

What did the researchers find? Eighteen out of the 20 brain regions activated in the adults when experiencing pain were also activated in the infants. This suggests that infants not only feel pain the way adults do, but also that they have a lower pain threshold.

babies pain
MRI scans reveal brain activity in response to a painful stimulus in infants and adults.

CONVERSATIONS