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PLoS One. 2012;7(3):e34316. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0034316. Epub 2012 Mar 28.

Acute pain and a motivational pathway in adult rats: influence of early life pain experience.

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Division of Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology, University College London, London, United Kingdom.



The importance of neonatal experience upon behaviour in later life is increasingly recognised. The overlap between pain and reward pathways led us to hypothesise that neonatal pain experience influences reward-related pathways and behaviours in adulthood.


Rat pups received repeat plantar skin incisions (neonatal IN) or control procedures (neonatal anesthesia only, AN) at postnatal days (P)3, 10 and 17. When adult, rats with neonatal 'pain history' showed greater sensory sensitivity than control rats following acute plantar skin incision. Motivational behaviour in the two groups of rats was tested in a novelty-induced hypophagia (NIH) paradigm. The sensitivity of this paradigm to pain-induced changes in motivational behaviour was shown by significant increases in the time spent in the central zone of the arena (43.7±5.9% vs. 22.5±6.7%, p<0.05), close to centrally placed food treats, and decreased number of rears (9.5±1.4 vs. 19.2±2.3, p<0.001) in rats with acute plantar skin incision compared to naive, uninjured animals. Rats with a neonatal 'pain history' showed the same pain-induced behaviour in the novelty-induced hypophagia paradigm as controls. However, differences were observed in reward-related neural activity between the two groups. Two hours after behavioural testing, brains were harvested and neuronal activity mapped using c-Fos expression in lateral hypothalamic orexin neurons, part of a specific reward seeking pathway. Pain-induced activity in orexin neurons of control rats (18.4±2.8%) was the same as in uninjured naive animals (15.5±2.6%), but in those rats with a 'pain history', orexinergic activity was significantly increased (27.2±4.1%, p<0.01). Furthermore the extent of orexin neuron activation in individual rats with a 'pain history' was highly correlated with their motivational behaviour (r = -0.86, p = 0.01).


These results show that acute pain alters motivational behaviour and that neonatal pain experience causes long-term changes in brain motivational orexinergic pathways, known to modulate mesolimbic dopaminergic reward circuitry.

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