Do fish feel pain? Scientists say it’s likely, even without certain brain regions

ARLINGTON, Texas — For anyone who’s a fan of animated classics like “Finding Nemo,” there’s no question fish feel pain. In the real world however, scientists actually still debate whether fish can experience the unpleasantness of pain. Now, a new study in pushing back against the theory these animals lack the cognitive ability of feel pain.

An international team concludes, although fish don’t have certain brain regions which have a connection to pain processing in humans, this doesn’t prove fish can’t sense painful sensations through other means.

Why do some people believe fish can’t feel pain?

Fish are a particularly divisive topic when it comes to scientists and philosophers debating the topic of animal suffering. Researchers first discovered pain receptors in fish in the early 2000s. After that, scientists developed experiments which seem to show fish do indeed feel pain.

Despite these results, some researchers continue to point out fish lack the cortical regions of the brain which regulate the emotional unpleasantness of pain, or “pain affect.”

In the new report, researchers argue these regions aren’t even necessary for humans to feel pain. Their research looks at studies involving patients suffering severe brain injuries. These patients continued to feel pain despite damage to the same areas missing in fish.

“Claiming that fish don’t feel pain due to the absence of these regions of the brain could be much like concluding they can’t swim because they lack arms and legs,” says lead study author Phil Halper in a university release.

The brain finds a way to express pain

Halper and researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington say proving if fish feel pain is key in understanding the complex way the brain translates painful stimuli in all creatures.

In one study the team examined, a patient named Roger lost key pain-processing regions of his brain due to disease. Despite this, Roger could still experience pain and the sensations actually became more intense.

After studying similar reports, the team concludes no single cortical region is absolutely necessary to create the pain affect. UTA associate professor and chair of philosophy and humanities, Kenneth Williford, says these findings support the theory of “neurofunctional resilience.” This is the idea that the brain is flexible enough to use different systems which still ensure the body can still feel pain and other sensations no matter what.

“While our study cannot prove that fish feel pain, we can assert that arguments relying on a lack of certain brain structures to deny pain in fish look increasingly untenable,” Williford concludes.

Researchers note proving fish feel pain will likely have major implications for society. Those findings will likely shape the way governments, environmental groups, and the food industry operate moving forward. It may even change how some people look at eating fish when it comes to their personal dietary decisions.

The study appears in the journal Philosophical Psychology.