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“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. 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.
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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.
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 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.