"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," goes the playground rhyme that's supposed to help children endure taunts from classmates. But a new study suggests that there's more going on inside our brains when someone snubs us – and that the brain may have its own way of easing social pain.
This is a brain image showing in orange/red one area of the brain where the natural painkiller (opioid) system was highly active in research volunteers who are experiencing social rejection. This region, called the amygdala, was one of several where the U-M team recorded the first images of this system responding to social pain, not just physical pain. Studying this response, and the variation between people, could aid understanding of depression and anxiety.
Credit: University of Michigan
The findings, recently published in Molecular Psychiatry by a University of Michigan Medical School team, show that the brain's natural painkiller system responds to social rejection – not just physical injury.
What's more, people who score high on a personality trait called resilience – the ability to adjust to environmental change – had the highest amount of natural painkiller activation.
The team, based at U-M's Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, used an innovative approach to make its findings. They combined advanced brain scanning that can track chemical release in the brain with a model of social rejection based on online dating. The work was funded by the U-M Depression Center, the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research, the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, the Phil F Jenkins Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.
They focused on the mu-opioid receptor system in the brain – the same system that the team has studied for years in relation to response to physical pain. Over more than a decade, U-M work has shown that when a person feels physical pain, their brains release chemicals called opioids into the space between neurons, dampening pain signals.
David T. Hsu, Ph.D., the lead author of the new paper, says the new research on social rejection grew out of recent studies by others, which suggests that the brain pathways that are activated during physical pain and social pain are similar.
But then, when the participants were lying in a brain imaging machine called a PET scanner, they were informed that the individuals they found attractive and interesting were not interested in them.
Brain scans made during these moments showed opioid release, measured by looking at the availability of mu-opioid receptors on brain cells. The effect was largest in the brain regions called the ventral striatum, amygdala, midline thalamus, and periaqueductal gray – areas that are also known to be involved in physical pain.
The researchers had actually made sure the participants understood ahead of time that the "dating" profiles were not real, and neither was the "rejection." But nonetheless, the simulated social rejection was enough to cause both an emotional and opioid response.Suffering slings and arrows differently
"Individuals who scored high for the resiliency trait on a personality questionnaire tended to be capable of more opioid release during social rejection, especially in the amygdala," a region of the brain involved in emotional processing, Hsu says. "This suggests that opioid release in this structure during social rejection may be protective or adaptive."
The more opioid release during social rejection in another brain area called the pregenual cingulate cortex, the less the participants reported being put in a bad mood by the news that they'd been snubbed.
The researchers also examined what happens when the participants were told that someone they'd expressed interest in had expressed interest in them – social acceptance. In this case, some brain regions also had more opioid release. "The opioid system is known to play a role in both reducing pain and promoting pleasure, and our study shows that it also does this in the social environment," says Hsu.
The new research holds more importance than just pure discovery, note the authors, who also include senior author Jon-Kar Zubieta, M.D., Ph.D., a longtime opioid researcher. Specifically, they are pursuing further research on how those who are vulnerable to, or currently suffering from depression or social anxiety have an abnormal opioid response to social rejection and/or acceptance. "It is possible that those with depression or social anxiety are less capable of releasing opioids during times of social distress, and therefore do not recover as quickly or fully from a negative social experience. Similarly, these individuals may also have less opioid release during positive social interactions, and therefore may not gain as much from social support," Hsu theorizes.
Hsu also notes that perhaps new opioid medications without addictive potential may be an effective treatment for depression and social anxiety. Although such medications are not yet available, he adds, "increasing evidence for the neural overlap of physical and social pain suggests a significant opportunity to bridge research in the treatment of chronic pain with the treatment of psychiatric disorders."
If nothing else, perhaps knowing that our response to a social snub isn't "all in our heads" can help some people understand their responses and cope better, Hsu says. "The knowledge that there are chemicals in our brains working to help us feel better after being rejected is comforting."
In addition to Hsu and Zubieta, the research team included BJ Sanford, KK Meyers, TM Love, KE Hazlett, H Wang, L Ni, SJ Walker, BJ Mickey, ST Korycinski, RA Koeppe, JK Crocker, and SA Langenecker. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (MH085035, MH074459, DA022520, DA027494), as well as by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research, a Rachel Upjohn Clinical Scholars Award, and the Phil F. Jenkins Foundation.
Reference: Molecular Psychiatry, doi:10.1038/mp.2013.96
Kara Gavin | EurekAlert!
Smart Data Transformation – Surfing the Big Wave
02.12.2016 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Angewandte Informationstechnik FIT
Climate change could outpace EPA Lake Champlain protections
18.11.2016 | University of Vermont
Physicists of the University of Würzburg have made an astonishing discovery in a specific type of topological insulators. The effect is due to the structure of the materials used. The researchers have now published their work in the journal Science.
Topological insulators are currently the hot topic in physics according to the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Only a few weeks ago, their importance was...
In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.
Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...
Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
09.12.2016 | Life Sciences
09.12.2016 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation
09.12.2016 | Health and Medicine