Premature babies face a “lifetime of pain sensitivity”, according to The Times. It said that research has shown that premature babies become over-sensitive to pain due to the intensive-care treatments, such as injections, that they receive.
This story is based on a small study in which the brain activity of premature babies was compared to that of full-term babies, when they were exposed to painful (but medically necessary) stimuli. Brain scans suggested that premature babies had a greater neurological response to painful stimuli.
However, a greater brain response does not necessarily mean the babies experienced more pain, a shortcoming that the researchers themselves highlight. This means the study does not prove that premature babies feel pain more acutely, and certainly does not indicate that they are more sensitive to pain for the rest of their lives.
This is valuable research into an important subject, but its findings do not mean that the necessary treatments for premature babies will have a negative effect on them for the rest of their lives.
The study was carried out by researchers from University College London, and was funded by the Medical Research Council, the British Pain Society and the UCL/UCLH Comprehensive Biomedical Research Centre. The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal NeuroImage.
This was an observational study that compared the neurological response of eight infants born at term (i.e. not premature) during heel lances with the responses of seven prematurely born infants. The heel lances were all clinically essential, and were performed in order to take a small blood sample. To make these analyses of pain response comparable, they were carried out when the infants were the same ‘postmenstrual age’, a measure of age which takes into account the degree of prematurity.
The researchers say that previous research has established that older children born pre-term have greater pain sensitivity than their full-term peers. In this research, they attempted to investigate the links between noxious (physically harmful) stimuli and brain activity in both premature and term babies.
The researchers undertook their study in a hospital setting in a special care baby unit. The eight term babies were ‘normal term infants’ aged less than seven days. The seven pre-term babies were studied when they reached the equivalent post-menstrual age (which ranged from 40 to 116 days after birth).
The researchers compared the responses of the two groups of babies to both noxious and non-noxious stimuli, i.e. to heel-lance and to ‘innocuous’ tapping of a rubber bung against the babies’ heels. They also had a no-stimulation period as a control. Responses to the stimuli were assessed using EEG to measure brain activity. The EEG has 17 electrodes placed on the scalp and body, although activity at two particular sites (CPz and Cz) were considered the most important.
The analysis methods used to compare the study data appear to be quite complex, but seem appropriate for this study. The researchers used a technique called ‘principle component analysis’ to analyse the brain activity at two electrode sites.
The study found that the response to heel lance was dependent on age, while the response to non-noxious stimulus was not. The authors say this suggests that a larger population of cortical neurons is activated in the premature infants than in controls when they experience the same stimulus.
The researchers say that their study has shown that premature infants who have spent at least 40 days in intensive or special care “have an increased neuronal response to noxious stimuli compared to healthy newborns at the same corrected age”.
This small observational study has some shortcomings. The researchers highlight the main limitation with this study – the assumption that the amplitude of response, in terms of brain waves at particular sites, directly reflects the magnitude of perceived pain. They say that ‘while generally true’, this may not always be the case. The study did not use other well-known methods to assess whether the neonates were actually experiencing pain, such as validated pain scales, which assess facial expressions or crying.
Additionally, premature babies are highly likely to have had more heel lances than term infants, so the study may just be measuring the heightened sensitivity of the feet to such stimuli. If this is the case, it is not correct to say that this study demonstrates that premature babies feel more pain than term ones. It is also unclear whether the researchers adjusted for factors such as the baby’s weight, which may affect the amplitude of EEG readings.
Overall, this is an early study of an important subject area. It provides some evidence that children who are born prematurely process noxious stimuli (by way of heel lance) differently to babies born full term. However, it is not yet clear whether this means they experience more pain per se, or why the neurological responses may be different. More research is needed to explore the factors.