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The study suggests that physical and social pain appear to overlap in the brain, thereby relying on some of the similar behavioral and neural mechanisms.
This could be a probable reason why a pill associated with treating physical pains of sore joints and headaches is found to ease off psychological distress.
To determine whether Acetaminophen could actually relieve social pain, researchers from the University of Kentucky carried out two experiments.
In the first experiment, they studied 62 healthy workers who were divided into two groups.
One group was given a dose of 1,000 milligrams of acetaminophen, while the other group was administered placebo. All the participants were asked to report about the degree of social pain they experienced for three weeks.
Researchers used the “Hurt feelings Scale” to measure the extent of pain.
It was found those taking acetaminophen reported fewer incidents of distressful feelings and social pain, while participants who were given placebo treatment reported no change of hurt feelings.
“We were very excited about these initial findings. The next step was to identify the neural mechanisms underlying the findings," study author C. Nathan DeWall, an assistant professor of psychology at the university, said.
In the second experiment, 25 additional students were given a dose of 2,000 milligrams of each acetaminophen and placebo. After three weeks of taking the painkiller, the participants were asked to play a computer game designed to generate social rejection.
Those who took the pills were found to exhibit reduced neural responses in the brain regions associated with the distress of social pain as well as physical pain, the reports of the MRI scans of the participants showed. On the other hand, the placebo group reported no change.
"When you experience something that is socially painful, your body is going to experience it in much the same way as it would experience physical pain," DeWall explained. "By numbing physical pain, you should numb people to social pain. And that's what we've found."
"When people are snubbed, rejected or dumped, they describe it as feeling hurt, crushed or broken-hearted," he further said. "What these data show is it's not just a metaphor. There is strong evidence neurobiologically to support that."
Findings attract criticism
The researchers did not find any evidence whether acetaminophen could make people feel good or happy. The painkiller was just found to lower the neural responses in people such that they don’t feel as bad on being rejected.
As a consequence, the findings are being criticized for not offering any potential psychological benefit.
However, researchers of the present study countered saying that the findings do not recommend widespread use of the painkiller as the research is still in its initial stages. This possibility will have to be addressed in further studies, they said.
"We don't want our paper to be read as a widespread call to use acetaminophen to solve all your problems," DeWall said.
Findings of the study will appear in the journal Psychological Science.