When babies are exposed to pain, their brain "lights up" in a very way similar to adults', a pioneering Oxford University brain scanning study has found. Using a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner, the team saw pain "happening" inside the infant brain and it looked a lot like pain in adults.
"Babies can't tell us about their experience of pain and it is difficult to infer pain from visual observations," said Dr. Rebeccah Slater of Oxford University's department of pediatrics, lead author of the report.
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," Slater noted. The study looked at 10 healthy infants aged between one and six days old and 10 healthy adults aged 23-36 years.
During the research, babies, accompanied by parents and clinical staff, were placed in a MRI scanner where they usually fell asleep. MRI scans were then taken of the babies' brains as they were "poked" on the bottom of their feet with a special retracting rod creating a sensation "like being poked with a pencil" -- mild enough that it did not wake them up.
These scans were then compared with brain scans of adults exposed to the same pain stimulus. The researchers found that 18 of the 20 brain regions active in adults experiencing pain were active in babies.
Scans also showed that babies' brains had the same response to a weak "poke" as adults did to a stimulus four times as strong. The findings suggest that not only do babies experience pain just like adults but that they also have a much lower pain threshold.
The research was reported in the journal eLife