Natural Painkillers Released During Social Rejection

natural painkillersSo remember that time I was reading about Khloe Kardashian and her new ‘skinny short-shorts’ and got totally distracted by another article talking about gene expression, meditation and energy metabolism? (I mean, I love me some KoKo but come on: altering gene expression by closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths?! Um, AWESOME.) #Yeaimadork

Well, today’s kinda like that. (And yes, after great debate, I have taken to blogging with hashtags – I had a few concerns that the move might damage my journalistic credibility, but then I reminded myself that our last article was illustrated with a cartoon from The Jungle Book, so I figured the damage was already done…)

But back to today :) I was fueling up on my usual dose of celebrity gossip (side-note: anyone else super excited by these rumors that Ryan Gosling might break up with Eva Mendes and get back together with Rachel McAdams?!) when I came across this scandalous headline: Social Feedback Activates the Endogenous Opiod System. (What can I say? My ScienceDaily bookmark is sandwiched right between TMZ and Now, I know it doesn’t exactly jump off the page, but this article has all the makings of an Entertainment Tonight featured story: sex, drugs and a bunch of neuroscientists from the University of Michigan. (Ok, so maybe not so much the last part…)

But seriously…

Researchers based at the University of Michigan’s Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute (#sexy) found that the brain’s natural painkiller system (yep, we’ve got one of those) is activated by social rejection, not just physical pain. Meaning that when you get your feelings hurt (sorry Eva!), your body releases chemicals called opioids – similar to when you fall or hurt your arm.

How do they know for sure?

Scientists orgaized a group of participants in an online-dating-type environment, and then monitored their brain activity when certain participants were told that the guys/girls they liked didn’t like them back. (I don’t wanna go overboard with all these hashtags, but I feel like I should type something like #brutal lol) Researchers noticed that the rejected participants showed increased brain activity and opioid release in the ventral striatum, amygdala, midline thalamus and periaqueductal gray – areas of the brain associated with physical pain.

Here’s the craziest part:

The study participants knew ahead of time that the dating profiles (and rejection!) were fake!! But even a simulated experience of social rejection was enough to spin their brains into damage control!

Also interesting, as explained by lead study author, Dr. David Hsu:

“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]. This suggests that opioid release in this structure during social rejection may be protective or adaptive.”

This is your brain on drugs…

So there your have it! Getting your heart broken really is painful – but the good news is, your brain’s got your back ;) (Speaking of which, if you haven’t read Can You Really Die of a Broken Heart, you should probably keep the party going and check it out!) I promise to post something more cheerful next week haha :)

In the meantime, I’m off to scribble Allie Loves Noah in all my notebooks work on building the new Prayers and Apples research study database (again: #sexy). Click the ‘Research’ tab in the upper-right-hand corner to take a peek! I’ll send out a new post once I have everything up and running :)

Hope everyone has a great week!


Hsu, D.T., Sanford, B.J., Meyers, K.K., Love, T.M., Hazlett, K.E., Wang, H., Ni, L., Walker, S.J., Mickey, B.J., Korycinski, S.T., Koeppe, R.A., Crocker, J.K., Langenecker, S.A. & Zubieta, J-K. (November 2013). Response of the u-opiod system to social rejection and acceptance. Molecular Psychiatry (18), 1211-1217. doi: 10.1038/mp.2013.96

Hsu, D.T., Sanford, B.J., Meyers, K.K., Love, T.M., Hazlett, K.E., Wang, H., Ni, L., Walker, S.J., Mickey, B.J., Korycinski, S.T., Koeppe, R.A., Crocker, J.K., Langenecker, S.A. & Zubieta, J-K. (November 2013). Social feedback activates the endogenous opiod system. Molecular Psychiatry (18), 1147. doi: 10.1038/mp.2013.139

University of Michigan Health System. (10 October 2013). Sticks and stones: Brain releases natural painkillers during social rejection. ScienceDaily. Retrieved: November 4, 2013.


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