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How do babies feel pain?

Last updated

03/08/21

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​Every year, around 100,000 babies​ in the UK are treated in neonatal care units due to being born prematurely or being born with an illness – equating to 1 in 7 babies. During this time, experiences of pain are inevitable, and even healthy babies experience painful procedures like screening tests and immunisations.

If you look at the electrical activity of the brain in the neonate compared to that of an adult, the response is substantially different. That means that neonatal pain is not an incomplete version of adult pain, it is something different.
Dr Lorenzo Fabrizi
2020 Emerging Leaders Prize-winner

What we experience as neonates can have short- and long-term consequences on our development and brains – but more research is needed into the influence of pain.

Our Emerging Leaders Prize winner Dr Lorenzo Fabrizi, a Principal Research Fellow at University College London, is aiming to understand how the neonatal brain processes pain, and the longer-term impact of pain. Using advanced brain imaging techniques, he has shown that the way the preterm brain processes pain dramatically changes with age and is different from the way that we process it as adults. This means that infants may not feel pain in the same way as adults, and that we cannot use common behaviours, like crying, to predict pain intensity.

Dr Fabrizi said: “If you look at the electrical activity of the brain in the neonate compared to that of an adult, the response is substantially different. That means that neonatal pain is not an incomplete version of adult pain, it is something different.”

Discoveries made by Dr Fabrizi have paved the way for a ‘brain-led’ approach to studying pain in babies, and opened new avenues of research to his own trainees and other groups in the UK and around the world.

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Using mice as an experimental model, Dr Fabrizi will study early development of networks in the brain that are responsible for processing pain, which is important for understanding when the neuronal architecture that allows babies to feel pain is fully developed. It is not possible to study this in humans, and insights from Dr Fabrizi’s research in animals could have vast clinical benefits – including the development of targeted treatments aimed at alleviating pain, especially in premature babies.

Dr Fabrizi says: “With this prize funding I will start a new line of research where I will be able to back-translate what I observe in humans into animal models in order to unpack and unravel the mechanisms underpinning those observations.”

Dr Fabrizi was awarded this funding through our 2020 Emerging Leaders Prize, which celebrated the achievements of researchers working in the field of pain. The prize funding is designed to provide a springboard for the winners’ careers and ensure they can continue to tackle key health challenges long into the future.

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On being awarded first place, Dr Fabrizi said: “When the Foundation called me, to tell me I’d won first prize, I almost fell off my chair! This award is a true turning point in my career.”

You can read more about our other Emerging Leaders Prize winners in the field of pain here.

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