fMRI Reveals Neural Activity Overlap Between Adult and Infant Pain originally appearing in eLife.
What was interesting in this article to me was not what was similar in the adult and infant brain, but was different.
The same areas lit up on the above fMRI scan EXCEPT: the amygdala, insult and orbitofrontal cortex. These areas are associated with higher level cognitive functions, which develop later on in life and so are not active in infants. What these areas do is make connections between the painful stimulus and what caused it, evaluate the pain for importance/meaning, and are involved in making decisions on what to do about the pain. Since these areas aren’t functioning yet, I would argue that infants do not have the ability to perform these functions. From that, I would say that infants cry not necessarily because of what we would identify as pain– the “ouch” factor– but more from having an unfamiliar stimulus that they are confused by and don’t know what to do with the cognitive information. Which would be why they cry at seemingly insignificant pain and “real” pain more less the same. So, I think the point of the study was to argue for better pain control in infant medical care. However, I would say that if the pain is not going to cause an infant undo physical or mental harm, it may be beneficial to allow them to experience some pain, so that these brain areas come on line faster. Then they will begin to assign meaning to that pain, such as, “That stove was on, hot and it hurt when I touched it. Maybe touching it wasn’t a good idea.” That’s one of those principles of neuroplasticity: use it to improve it. Any other thoughts?