Brain scans reveal: babies can feel pain

One would have thought that it is completely obvious that babies can feel pain. Of course, it can be argued that there’s a gap between behavioural evidence and pain states. Still, isn’t that worry really just a philosophical one, as one hears doctors say?

Unfortunately, common sense appears to have failed in the case of infants and pain.

In the early 1980’s it was revealed that babies react chemically as adults do to what adults count as painful circumstances. It also turned that neonates needing surgical interventions were given NO pain relief. “Well that is completely horrible but,” one might have thought, “At least that will end now.”

No such luck. Recent brain scanning experiments show that even very young babies do indeed react much as adults do to what adults count as painful circumstances, but pain relief is not the norm.

The brains of babies ‘light up’ in a very similar way to adults when exposed to the same painful stimulus, a pioneering brain scanning study has discovered. It suggests that babies experience pain much like adults. As recently as the 1980s it was common practice for babies to be given neuromuscular blocks but no pain relief medication during surgery. In 2014 a review of neonatal pain management practice in intensive care highlighted that although such infants experience an average of 11 painful procedures per day 60% of babies do not receive any kind of pain medication.

(Journal Reference:
Sezgi Goksan, Caroline Hartley, Faith Emery, Naomi Cockrill, Ravi Poorun, Fiona Moultrie, Richard Rogers, Jon Campbell, Michael Sanders, Eleri Adams, Stuart Clare, Mark Jenkinson, Irene Tracey, Rebeccah Slater. fMRI reveals neural activity overlap between adult and infant pain. eLife, 2015; 4 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.06356)

The study comes out of the University of Oxford. I think it applies only to the UK. There has been an earler, 2011, study in Canada covering a wider age range and the results are similarly discouraging.

5 thoughts on “Brain scans reveal: babies can feel pain

  1. Brain’s “lighting up,” especially as a result of fmri studies, is a bad reason to infer underlying mental states. I mean, there are a lot of reasons why we might think that babies feel pain but brain regions “lighting up” is not one of them. Pain is a remarkably complex mental state that stubbornly resists a fully satisfying philosophical analysis. An fmri isn’t going to solve those problems for us.

  2. Ejrd, the evidence is not simply that brain areas light up; rather, it is that there are very extensive similarities between adult and infant brain reactions. Unless we think pain does not involve the brain, then these results seem at least relevant.

    There are, however, reasons for thinking there are all sorts of social factors, for example, that might be involved with adults and not neonates.

    I also tried to suggest that it seems silly to take brain scans as our first good reason for thinking infants feel pain.

  3. This is an important post. I agree with ejrd and Dr. Jacobson fmri is not a “first good reason” but here is why I personally find these data important. As far as I can tell, many of these ideas, like babies can’t feel pain, or animals can’t think, or acquired inheritance is impossible…many of these ideas grew in an authoritarian culture (that is, mid 20th century white man science) that favored abstraction over simple common sensical observation (another example: the purported safety of ionizing radiation.)

    Since some of the ideas are still disseminated as obvious fact (like I was taught in my undergrad days that babies cannot feel pain, or on a popular philosophy blog it was argued industrial farming is not so bad, since animals cannot consider their well being under different counterfactuals) then I conclude common sense observations are not enough. So maybe fmri is sufficiently abstract and keeps intact enough of the prevailing culture that it can persuade those who would otherwise deny the conclusion. I think that is a good thing, even if it is not a “first good reason”.

    ejrd if you mean that pain cannot be fully explained by a “fully satisfying philosophical analysis” then of course I agree with you. But practically speaking I assume (perhaps wrongly) you would agree we have to form beliefs and act in a world without many pieces that would be fully satisfying, philosophically. Like if we met in person I would feel a need to treat you well and form beliefs about you, even though what exactly “you” amount to is a bit mysterious, philisophically.

  4. DL, thank you foryour important observation. When I first saw the reports in the 1980’s I thought that that was what we got with medicine done by doctors who had. Next to nothing to do with feeding babies and changing diapers/nappies. For whatever reason, the advent of many more women in medicine has not been enough.

    To be fair, one probably should be clear that the use of anaesthetics is not without substantial dangers, particularly in medically fragile new infants.

    This sort of irrelevant, but maybe interesting: I am now more aware of the problems with anaesthetics in older people. The NYTimes has been stressing the problems for some time. Recently an elderly friend of mine woke up to a room apparently full of leaping cats. The NYT puts the isk of hallucination very high up.

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