Prenatal stress amplifies the immediate behavioural responses to acute pain in piglets
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Pre-natal stress (PNS) or undernutrition can have numerous effects on an individual's biology throughout their lifetime. Some of these effects may be adaptive by allowing individuals to tailor their phenotype to environmental conditions. Here we investigated, in the domestic pig Sus scrofa, whether one possible consequence of a predicted adverse environment could be altered pain perception. The behavioural response of piglets to the surgical amputation (‘docking’) of their tail or a sham procedure was measured for 1 min in piglets born to mothers who either experienced mid-gestation social stress or were left undisturbed throughout pregnancy. A behavioural pain score was found to predict the docked status of piglets with high discriminant accuracy. Piglets exposed to PNS had a significantly higher pain score than controls, and for each litter of tail-docked piglets, the average pain score was correlated with mid-gestation maternal cortisol levels. The data presented here provide evidence that the experience of stress in utero can result in a heightened acute response to injury in early life. Speculatively, this may represent an adaptive alteration occurring as a consequence of a pre-natal ‘early warning’ of environmental adversity.
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