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Researchers Report Fetuses Can Make 'Pain Faces'

Update Date: Jun 07, 2013 02:31 PM EDT

Fetal development must be monitored via technology. Doctors work with expecting mothers to determine how normal a fetus is developing, and although there are several tests that can determine whether or not the fetus will have a genetic disorder, a lot is still left unknown. In a new study, researchers discovered that fetuses in their third trimester could potentially make what is known as a pain face. Although the researchers believe that this face could possibly be an indicator of the health status of the fetus, they acknowledged the fact that they are still not sure whether or not the fetuses can actually feel pain. Regardless, this finding suggests that by the final period of gestation, fetuses develop more facial expressions.

The research team from Durham and Lancaster Universities in the United Kingdom performed four-dimensional (4D) scans of 15 healthy babies, eight were females and seven were males. Using a video footage of the 4D scans, researchers were able to study the development of facial expressions from week 24 to week 36, which is between the second and third trimesters. The researchers found that at week 24, fetuses were only capable of one small facial expression known as a smile, which was characterized by a slight movement of the mouth. By week 36, however, the researchers found four distinctive facial expression movements. Three of them, which include lowering of the eyebrows, wrinkling the nose and stretching the mouth, would essentially present a pain face. 

Although the researchers do not know if this pain face is indicative of anything, they believe that these facial expressions could potentially provide more information to the doctors regarding the fetuses' development. The researchers stated that these facial developments could indicate proper brain development.

"It is vital for infants to be able to show pain as soon as they are born so that they can communicate any distress or pain they might feel to their carers and our results show that healthy fetuses 'learn' to combine the necessary facial movements before they are born," lead researcher Dr Nadja Reissland, from Durham University's Department of Psychology, said according to Medical Xpress. "This suggests that we can determine the normal development of facial movements and potentially identify abnormal development too. This could then provide a further medical indication of the health of the unborn baby."

The study was published in PLoS ONE.  

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