What's Tylenol Doing to Our Minds?The active drug in Tylenol, acetaminophen, is one of the best medications we have for helping people in pain. It's also one the most commonly overdosed substances in the world and puts about 60,000 Americans in the hospital every year. Several hundred people in the U.S. will die in 2013 from liver failure after acetaminophen overdose.
In 2009, research showed that it seemed to dull the pain of social rejection -- sort of like alcohol or Xanax. The author of that study, Nathan DeWall at the University of Kentucky, said at that time, "Social pain, such as chronic loneliness, damages health as much as smoking and obesity."
New research this week found that Tylenol altered the way subjects passed moral judgements. Psychologists used that as a proxy measure for personal distress, a relationship that has been previously demonstrated.
Daniel Randles and colleagues at the University of British Columbia write in the journal Psychological Science, "The meaning-maintenance model posits that any violation of expectations leads to an affective experience that motivates compensatory affirmation. We explore whether the neural mechanism that responds to meaning threats can be inhibited by acetaminophen." Totally.
More plainly, "Physical pain and social rejection share a neural process and subjective component that are experienced as distress." That neural process has been traced to the same part of the brain. They figure that if you blunt one, you blunt both. As they told LiveScience, "When people feel overwhelmed with uncertainty in life or distressed by a lack of purpose, what they're feeling may actually be painful distress ... We think that Tylenol is blocking existential unease in the same way it prevents pain, because a similar neurological process is responsible for both types of distress."
Acetaminophen Seems to Ease Some Existential FearsNew research suggests acetaminophen (Tylenol) may help individuals overcome non-specific fear and anxiety brought about by thinking about death or the human condition.
According to lead researcher Daniel Randles and colleagues at the University of British Columbia, the new findings suggest that Tylenol may have more profound psychological effects than previously understood.
The study, which posits an expanded view of how the human brain processes different kinds of pain, is published in the journal Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
“Pain exists in many forms, including the distress that people feel when exposed to thoughts of existential uncertainty and death,” says Randles.
“Our study suggests these anxieties may be processed as ‘pain’ by the brain — but Tylenol seems to inhibit the signal telling the brain that something is wrong.”
The study builds on recent American research that found acetaminophen — the generic form of Tylenol — can successfully reduce the non-physical pain of being ostracized from friends.
Pain Pills Could Ease Hurt FeelingsGetting the snub from friends can feel like a slap in the face. Now researchers say treating such social pain may be as easy as popping a pain pill. They warn, however, that more research is needed before anyone tries the approach.
The finding builds on research showing that psychological blows not only feel like they hurt us, they actually do. For instance, scientists have found a gene linked with both physical pain and a person's sensitivity to rejection. And some of the same brain regions are linked with both pain types.
So perhaps it's not surprising that a painkiller would alleviate both as well.
"The idea that a drug designed to alleviate physical pain should reduce the pain of social rejection seemed simple and straightforward based on what we know about neural overlap between social and physical pain systems," said lead researcher C. Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky. "To my surprise, I couldn't find anyone who had ever tested this idea."
But DeWall warns more research is needed to firm up the results. "Our findings do not constitute a call for widespread use of acetaminophen to cope with all types of personal problems," the researchers write in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.
The study involved two experiments involving acetaminophen, the main ingredient in Tylenol.
In one experiment, 62 healthy volunteers took 1,000 mg daily of either acetaminophen or a placebo. (Extra strength Tylenol contains about 500 mg of acetaminophen in each tablet.)
Each evening participants answered questions on the so-called Hurt Feelings Scale, which measures social pain caused by, say, teasing. Hurt feelings and social pain decreased over time in those taking acetaminophen, while no change was observed in subjects taking the placebo.
Participants' happiness levels didn't change much over the course of the study for either group.
Then, the team had 25 healthy volunteers take either 2,000 mg of acetaminophen or a placebo. After three weeks of taking the pills, subjects played a computer game rigged to create feelings of social rejection. Their brains were scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during the game-playing.
When experiencing rejection, participants taking the pain meds showed less activity, compared with the placebo group, in brain regions linked to both the distress of social pain and some components of physical pain.