A new study has revealed that pain experienced by infants who often do not receive analgesics while undergoing tests and treatment in neonatal intensive care may permanently alter future responses to anxiety, stress and pain in adulthood, as early life pain alters neural circuits in the brain that regulate stress.
The study led by Dr. Anne Murphy, associate director of the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State University, examined whether a single painful inflammatory procedure performed on male and female rat pups on the day of birth alters specific brain receptors that affect behavioural sensitivity to stress, anxiety and pain in adulthood.
The findings demonstrated that such an experience is associated with site-specific changes in the brain that regulate how the pups responded to stressful situations. Alterations in how these receptors function have also been associated with mood disorders.
The study findings mirror what is now being reported clinically. Children who experienced unresolved pain following birth show reduced responsiveness to pain and stress.
"While a dampened response to painful and stressful situations may seem advantageous at first, the ability to respond appropriately to a potentially harmful stimulus is necessary in the long term," Murphy said.