Device would measure pain in premature infants

By Lorraine Nelson, WSU Spokane and
Angie Funaiole, Office of Commercialization

Schiavenato-Martin-webSPOKANE, Wash. – The ability to measure pain in premature infants could help prevent them from developing tragic disabilities, says a researcher at Washington State University Spokane who just received a $235,000 grant from the state Life Sciences Discovery Fund for his work in this area.

“An infant’s central nervous system is not fully developed yet, and there’s mounting evidence that pain contributes to structural brain abnormalities that may lead or contribute to  many cognitive and behavioral  conditions,” says Martin Schiavenato, associate professor in the College of Nursing at WSU Spokane.

Schiavenato was a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit and said premature infants undergo an average of 12 painful procedures per day during their first two weeks. Last year, he and his team patented technology to measure three signals that indicate pain or distress in newborns: hand flexing, heart rate variability and facial grimacing.

The two-year grant will enable the group to refine the technology’s algorithms to assemble a composite pain score based on data from each of the three indicators. The team also will create sensors to collect and process the facial expression data.

“The LSDF grant will enable us to create a prototype to demonstrate the technology to leading manufacturers of medical devices in the newborn intensive care unit,” Schiavenato said. He is working with WSU’s Office of Commercialization to find industry partners to advance the device to the marketplace.

The LSDF invests money from the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of 1998 – between major tobacco companies and 46 states – in research and development that demonstrate the strongest potential for delivering health and economic returns to the state of Washington.


Martin Schiavenato, WSU College of Nursing, 509-324-7239,