Do fish feel sharp and aching pain?

In humans and other higher vertebrates, there are two types of nerve fibres used in pain transmission:

  • A fibres These transmit pain signals quickly. They are involved in the fast, pricking, sensation of pain.
  • C fibres These transmit pain signals slowly. They are involved in aching pain.

In vertebrates, the trigeminal nerve, the fifth cranial nerve, conveys sensory signal information from the head and mouth to the brain.

In this experiment, fish were deeply anaesthetized. The head was operated on to expose the trigeminal nerve. The nerve was stimulated by very fine wire, heat and chemicals. Recordings were made.

The research found both of these fibres types. In fish, as in people, the nerve detects pain produced by heat, pressure or chemicals. Again, as in people, the nerve projects into the brain for processing of pain in the medulla, thalamus, and cerebellum.

Authors: Lynne Sneddon
Journal: Neuroscience Letters 319 167–171
Year: 2002
Where: Roslin Institute, Scotland
"Evoked activity demonstrated that there were fast adapting mechanoreceptors and polymodal slowly adapting mechanoreceptors that responded not only to mechanical stimulation but also to thermal and or chemical stimuli."


"The present study on the trout has demonstrated that the trigeminal nerve has both C and A-delta fibres."

"There were a large number of A-delta fibres in the trigeminal nerve of the rainbow trout, therefore, they have the potential for nociceptive² capabilities."


"The trigeminal nerve projects to the relevant brain areas, the thalamus, cerebellum and medulla, which are involved in pain or nociceptive processing in higher vertebrates. Fish are subject to noxious pollutants, unpalatable or poisonous food and also mouth injuries as a result of aggression, spiny prey and angling. It is conceivable that it would be adaptive for the animal to be able to perceive these potentially injurious stimuli and react appropriately."


"The size range of each fibre type was similar to those found in other animals. The cell bodies of the trigeminal ganglion were of a similar size to those found in man."

"This indicates that the basic components of the trigeminal nerve are similar in all vertebrates but only the relative number of fibre types that comprise the afferent nerves differ in fish."

"Nociceptors are slowly adapting polymodal mechanoreceptors and these receptor types were found on the head and face of the rainbow trout in this study."

"Therefore, the physiological recordings mirror the anatomical findings and show that there are fibres that could potentially act as nociceptive nerves."

¹Oncorhynchus mykiss = Rainbow trout
² A nociceptor is a sensory receptor that reacts to potentially damaging stimuli by sending nerve signals to the spinal cord and brain. This process is called nociception.

Fish Pain