The paper, published today in The Journal of Neuroscience, illustrates that routine care procedures for premature babies, such as heel-lancing for blood tests, can cause pain in premature infants. This study, undertaken on infants in the neonatal unit at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Obstetric Hospital, is the first direct scientific measure of pain in premature babies.
Professor Maria Fitzgerald, UCL Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, who led the team, said: "The uncertainties regarding pain management in preterm infants have been increasingly highlighted in recent years and there is a lack of basic information about effective methods of pain control in the youngest patients. As a result, while considerable effort is made to provide clinical pain-control in babies undergoing invasive procedures, this remains suboptimal in many units.
Until now, there has been limited information about pain in premature babies because measuring pain in pre-verbal children is difficult. While previous research shows that even the youngest newborn infants are capable of displaying behavioural, physiological and metabolic signs of pain and distress, the measures are all indirect and could be dismissed as bodily reflex reactions, rather than measures of true pain experience."
Brain scans taken while babies were having blood tests registered a surge of blood and oxygen in the sensory area in babies' brains, which indicates that the pain was processed in the higher levels of the brain. The somatosensory cortex is involved in processing sensations from the body surface and is known to be linked to pain sensation in adults.