Researchers at the University of Calgary are looking at the connection between exposure to pain in infants and challenges as teenagers.
Scientists at the faculty of veterinary medicine and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute says there is now evidence that some babies who experience pain are more likely to have chronic pain, stress and even depression later in life.
Post-doctoral researcher Nikita Burke says as recently as the 1980s it was believed preemies and newborns didn't feel pain. That meant surgical procedures were routinely done without painkillers.
"We've known since then that babies that are born premature or spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit do grow up to have altered pain thresholds and altered behaviour, but we don't know the precise mechanisms, and that's what my work is looking at," Burke told The Homestretch Thursday.
Exposure to pain early on studied in rats
She's using rats to examine how the immune cells of the central nervous system change when exposed to pain early on, and the link to altered sensitivity to pain in adolescence.
Babies that spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit undergo, on average, at least 10 painful procedures a day, Burke says.
"What we're looking at is the biology of the nervous system and to get a better understanding of how this happens and if we can prevent it in early life and then treat the change that happens in later life," Burke says.
This research could have implications for how premature or sick babies, who are often exposed to painful procedures, are treated, according to Burke's supervisor, Dr. Tuan Trang.
"Now we're starting to understand the importance of being able to manage pain, to assess pain in these very young, vulnerable children," he says.
Burke says she hopes to develop treatments to prevent cellular changes and even reverse problems later in life.
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With files from The Homestretch