Scientists Use Babies' Brain Signals To Detect Pain

by Cameron Norsworthy

Babies cry often, and for innumerable reasons. For parents and doctors alike, this is especially troubling where medical procedures are concerned. New research has shown that studying babies' brain signals helps doctors treat babies' pain better, helping them to differentiate between a baby crying out of hunger versus that same baby crying out of physical hurt. Measuring brain signals is an empirical way to make sure that an infant's pain is being appropriately managed, which can help make treatment more effective.

Published Wednesday, the study, entitled "Nociceptive brain activity as a measure of analgesic efficacy in infants," was put together by researchers at the University of Oxford. Study author Rebeccah Slater shared that, in measuring babies' pain, "currently, doctors use facial grimaces and squints, but they could be caused by other factors, such as hunger or the desire for a cuddle." Thus, a more objective approach is needed; The study authors noted a current "inability to objectively measure pain in nonverbal populations," and their work was therefore meant to investigate this gap a bit further.

In the study, 72 babies were analyzed, and their reactions to "medically necessary painful stimuli, experimental stimuli that were mildly noxious, and non-noxious control stimulation" were assessed, with the scientists recording the babies' brain signals as they reacted to the different stimuli. The methods utilized an electroencephalogram (EEG) to "[detect] electrical activity in [the] brain using small, flat metal discs (electrodes) attached to [the] scalp." When the doctors drew blood from the babies, the babies' brain signals were recorded, and pain was detected. When a painkilling gel was applied to the babies, the signal was then reduced. Interestingly, these distinct signal markers correlated with the babies' physical expressions of discomfort, validating them to some extent.

Bonnie Stevens, a professor at the University of Toronto and a senior scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children, told STAT that the researchers' findings at Oxford were a significant step forward, but were by no means the sole solution. “I think it’s really moving the science of pain assessment in babies forward,” she said, while noting, "I don’t think looking at EEG responses is going to replace everything else."

“At the end of the day," Stevens stressed, "we are going to need a multi-modal pain assessment for babies that is going to include both behavioral and physiological [measures] as well as something like EEG, which will pull everything together to give us a comprehensive pain assessment in babies." In finding a totally successful approach, some of the old methods, like studying a baby's expression and reaction, are still valuable. Combining the old with the new — the EEG signals — can ensure that the right painkillers and anesthesia are being applied. For doctors, parents, and babies especially, the developments are a huge relief.