Neurodevelopmental changes of fetal pain

Semin Perinatol. 2007 Oct;31(5):275-82. doi: 10.1053/j.semperi.2007.07.004.


Pain in the developing fetus is controversial because of the difficulty in measuring and interpreting pain during gestation. It has received increased attention lately because of recently introduced legislation that would require consideration of fetal pain during intentional termination of pregnancy. During development, sensory fibers are abundant by 20 weeks; a functional spinal reflex is present by 19 weeks; connections to the thalamus are present by 20 weeks; and connections to subplate neurons are present by 17 weeks with intensive differentiation by 25 weeks. These cells are important developmentally, but decline as a result of natural apoptosis. Mature thalamocortical projections are not present until 29 to 30 weeks, which has led many to believe the fetus does not experience emotional "pain" until then. Pain requires both nociception and emotional reaction or interpretation. Nociception causes physiologic stress, which in turn causes increases in catecholamines, cortisol, and other stress hormones. Physiological stress is different from the emotional pain felt by the more mature fetus or infant, and this stress is mitigated by pain medication such as opiates. The plasticity of the developing brain makes it vulnerable to the stressors that cause long-term developmental changes, ultimately leading to adverse neurological outcomes. Whereas evidence for conscious pain perception is indirect, evidence for the subconscious incorporation of pain into neurological development and plasticity is incontrovertible. Scientific data, not religious or political conviction, should guide the desperately needed research in this field. In the meantime, it seems prudent to avoid pain during gestation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Abortion, Induced / adverse effects
  • Autonomic Nervous System / embryology
  • Emotions
  • Fetal Development / physiology*
  • Fetus / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / embryology*
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / embryology*
  • Stress, Physiological