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ILAR J. 2011;52(2):175-84.

Pain and suffering in invertebrates?

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School of Biological Sciences, Medical Biology Centre, Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland.


All animals face hazards that cause tissue damage and most have nociceptive reflex responses that protect them from such damage. However, some taxa have also evolved the capacity for pain experience, presumably to enhance long-term protection through behavior modification based on memory of the unpleasant nature of pain. In this article I review various criteria that might distinguish nociception from pain. Because nociceptors are so taxonomically widespread, simply demonstrating their presence is not sufficient. Furthermore, investigation of the central nervous system provides limited clues about the potential to experience pain. Opioids and other analgesics might indicate a central modulation of responses but often peripheral effects could explain the analgesia; thus reduction of responses by analgesics and opioids does not allow clear discrimination between nociception and pain. Physiological changes in response to noxious stimuli or the threat of a noxious stimulus might prove useful but, to date, application to invertebrates is limited. Behavior of the organism provides the greatest insights. Rapid avoidance learning and prolonged memory indicate central processing rather than simple reflex and are consistent with the experience of pain. Complex, prolonged grooming or rubbing may demonstrate an awareness of the specific site of stimulus application. Tradeoffs with other motivational systems indicate central processing, and an ability to use complex information suggests sufficient cognitive ability for the animal to have a fitness benefit from a pain experience. Available data are consistent with the idea of pain in some invertebrates and go beyond the idea of just nociception but are not definitive. In the absence of conclusive data, more humane care for invertebrates is suggested.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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