EGA Institute for Women's Health


The effects of early life experience upon developing pain circuits in the human infant brain

Principal Supervisor: Judith Meek

Subsidiary Supervisor: Maria Fitzgerald

Project Summary:

Many sick infants experience pain but in order to treat it effectively we need to understand how pain is processed in the infant brain.  We use near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) and electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings to study the functional maturation of the brain areas responsible for discriminating noxious events and creating the uniquely unpleasant quality of pain. The objective of this research project is to establish how early life pain experience, such as those accompanying clinical procedures, influence the normal development of pain circuitry in the brain.  Pain perception is known to be affected by both genetic and epigenetic factors, creating what are described as ‘pain phenotypes’.  Significant variability of infant pain behaviour is observed between groups of preterm and term infants up to 12 months but this has not been quantified or related to cortical pain activity.  This is of great importance if we are to design appropriate pain relief for this cohort. Testing whether factors such as number of skin-breaking events, postnatal age, age at birth, gender and stress reactivity account for individual pain variability will inform us about the development of individual pain phenotypes in infants at birth and to what extent they are shaped by postnatal experience.


  1. Verriotis M, Fabrizi F, Lee A, Cooper R, Fitzgerald M, Meek J  Mapping cortical responses to somatosensory stimuli in human infants with simultaneous near-infrared spectroscopy and event-related potential recording.   eNeuro (2016) in press
  2. Verriotis M, Fabrizi L, Lee A, Ledwidge S, Meek J, Fitzgerald M. Cortical activity evoked by inoculation needle prick in infants up to one-year old.  Pain. 2015 Feb;156(2):222-30
  3. Williams G, Fabrizi L, Meek J, Jackson D, Tracey I, Robertson N, Slater R, Fitzgerald M Functional magnetic resonance imaging can be used to explore tactile and nociceptive processing in the infant brain.  Acta Paediatr. 2015 Feb;104(2):158-66
  4. Cornelissen L, Fabrizi L, Patten D, Worley A, Meek J, Boyd S, Slater R, Fitzgerald M. Postnatal temporal, spatial and modality tuning of nociceptive cutaneous flexion reflexes in human infants. PLoS One. 2013 Oct 4;8(10):e76470
  5. Fabrizi L, Slater R, Worley A, Meek J, Boyd S, Olhede S, Fitzgerald M. A shift in sensory processing that enables the developing human brain to discriminate touch from pain.  Curr Biol. 2011 Sep 27;21(18):1552-8