Thursday, May 12, 2016

This common pain reliever may reduce empathy, study says

By Ashley Welch CBS News May 11, 2016

If you're like most Americans and experience the occasional headache or muscle pain, chances are you've probably taken acetaminophen to find some relief.

But new research shows the drug might come with an unexpected side effect. In addition to easing physical pain, it may also affect your ability to feel other people's pain -- your sense of empathy.

The medication, which is the main ingredient in Tylenol, is the most common drug ingredient in the United States, according to the Consumer Products Association. Each week, about 23 percent of American adults -- some 52 million people -- take medicine containing acetaminophen, the trade group reports.

This isn't the first study to suggest the drug may have an impact beyond easing aches and pains. Past research has shown it may blunt individual user's emotions -- both negative and positive. Now the new study finds that effect may extend to dulling empathy felt for others.


This all led the researchers to conclude that "when you take acetaminophen you might feel less of an emotional reaction when you see someone else in pain," Mischkowski said.

However, he noted that the drug does not eliminate empathy and called the effect seen in the study "moderate."

While more research is needed to determine the possible mechanism behind the connection, the study authors believe the effect involves neurochemical levels in the brain.

"Acetaminophen affects a lot of processes in the brain," Mischkowski said. "Potentially, it affects inflammatory processes which mediate physical pain. It might also be related to serotonin or endocannabinoids or opioids. So all of this leads to potential mechanisms."

The authors note that the research took place in a controlled laboratory setting and the further research is needed to see how the effects may play out in real life.

Still, Mischkowski called the findings "robust" and said he anticipates they must "have real-world implications," which, he said, might lead to either positive or negative consequences depending on the social context.

"Empathy is a really important process for social interactions," he said, "but it depends on who you're empathizing with. If it's someone who needs help and deserves it, that's great, but sometimes we empathize with people who don't really deserve it or might even be abusing it. So it depends on the situation whether an effect of acetaminophen on empathy is a good or bad thing."

The study authors say they will continue to study the potential effects of acetaminophen on people's emotions and behaviors, and want to test whether another common pain medication -- ibuprofen -- has a similar outcome.






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