Somatosensory function and pain in extremely preterm young adults from the UK EPICure cohort: sex-dependent differences and impact of neonatal surgery

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Abstract

Background:

Surgery or multiple procedural interventions in extremely preterm neonates influence neurodevelopmental outcome and may be associated with long-term changes in somatosensory function or pain response.

Methods:

This observational study recruited extremely preterm (EP, <26 weeks' gestation; n=102, 60% female) and term-born controls (TC; n=48) aged 18–20 yr from the UK EPICure cohort. Thirty EP but no TC participants had neonatal surgery. Evaluation included: quantitative sensory testing (thenar eminence, chest wall); clinical pain history; questionnaires (intelligence quotient; pain catastrophising; anxiety); and structural brain imaging.

Results:

Reduced thermal threshold sensitivity in EP vs TC participants persisted at age 18–20 yr. Sex-dependent effects varied with stimulus intensity and were enhanced by neonatal surgery, with reduced threshold sensitivity in EP surgery males but increased sensitivity to prolonged noxious cold in EP surgery females (P<0.01). Sex-dependent differences in thermal sensitivity correlated with smaller amygdala volume (P<0.05) but not current intelligence quotient. While generalised decreased sensitivity encompassed mechanical and thermal modalities in EP surgery males, a mixed pattern of sensory loss and sensory gain persisted adjacent to neonatal scars in males and females. More EP participants reported moderate–severe recurrent pain (22/101 vs 4/48; χ2=0.04) and increased pain intensity correlated with higher anxiety and pain catastrophising.

Conclusions:

After preterm birth and neonatal surgery, different patterns of generalised and local scar-related alterations in somatosensory function persist into early adulthood. Sex-dependent changes in generalised sensitivity may reflect central modulation by affective circuits. Early life experience and sex/gender should be considered when evaluating somatosensory function, pain experience, or future chronic pain risk.

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