DOCTORS who assume that unborn babies feel no pain may have to think again after research being carried out in Glasgow and London is completed.
The findings could have major implications for the growing specialty of foetal medicine. Clinical procedures on the unborn often involve the use of needles to draw off blood.
It has only been recognised over the past 10 years that new-born infants felt pain - prior to that, minor neo-natal surgery was carried out without drugs.
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That has changed and it may turn out that unborn babies, too, will require to be given analgesics before being subjected to potentially painful procedures.
Dr Alan Cameron, a consultant obstetrician and foetal medicine specialist at the Queen Mother's Hospital, is leading the Glasgow end of the research in collaboration with doctors at Queen Charlotte's and Chelsea Hospital in London.
Researchers there, led by Professor Nick Fisk, first signalled the possible existence of foetal pain two years ago in a report in the Lancet after they had tested blood samples on a group of unborn babies of 20-34 weeks gestation. The procedures had been required because of rhesus disease.
Over the next two years, Dr Cameron will be testing samples from 30 babies who were ``needled'' through the umbilical cord and 30 who were needled through the abdomen and into the intrahepatic vein and comparing levels of the stress hormones.
The latter is often easier to perform, but Dr Cameron said: ``The umbilical cord is denervated, so there should be no pain from it. But if you go through the abdomen, you will cause some discomfort.
``If we find raised levels of cortisol and beta-endorphin, we won't be able to say flatly that the foetus feels pain, but it will be a very strong indicator.''
Foetal medicine is a growing area, with more and more disorders becoming treatable before babies are born.
q A winter peak in the number of cot deaths is puzzling doctors, who believe it may provide clues to the cause of the syndrome.
New studies in Britain and Australia show that while numbers of cot deaths rates have fallen dramatically, there are still more of them in winter than in summer.
Researchers led by Professor Stuart Douglas from Aberdeen University Medical School compared cot death rates in the late 1980s with those between 1991 and 1993.
They found that in both Britain and Australia the rate fell every month. But although the size of the winter peak diminished in the later years, a substantial seasonal difference remained.