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Pain killers can be a downer for emotions as well

Photo illustration by Jon McAllister / Photo Editor

Photo illustration by Jon McAllister / Photo Editor

Next time you’re getting ready to watch a heart-breaking movie, you might take some Tylenol to avoid feeling too sad.

Results from a new study indicate that taking acetaminophen, a commonly used pain reliever and the main ingredient in Tylenol and other medicines, could result in dulling both positive and negative emotions in addition to physical pain. Acetaminophen is the most commonly used drug ingredient in the United States, found in more than 600 medicines, according to the trade group Consumer Healthcare Products Association. Each week, about 52 million Americans take a medicine containing acetaminophen, according to the CHPA.

Geoff Durso, a doctoral student in social psychology, was the main author of the study, with assistance from Baldwin Way, an assistant professor in the psychology department, and Andrew Luttrell, a graduate student in psychology at OSU, according to a university press release.

Durso said he became interested in this topic based on previous research that has shown “acetaminophen blunts negative emotions beyond those arising from physical pain, like social rejection.”

“We hypothesized that this might be the case because acetaminophen could be having a broader effect on individuals’ evaluative and emotional processing, given past psychological theory and related neurological evidence,” Durso said.

The experiment involved two different studies with college students. The participants were told that the study aimed to analyze the possible effects of acetaminophen on social cognition. In the first study, half of the 82 students received 1,000 milligrams of acetaminophen, and the other half took an identical-looking placebo. The experiment was double-blind, meaning neither the experimenters nor the participants knew who was getting the drug and who was getting the placebo. The experimenters then waited an hour for the drug to take effect.

Participants were asked to view 40 photographs depicting images ranging from extremely unpleasant (malnourished children crying) to neutral (a cow in a field) to extremely pleasant (young children playing with cats in the field). These photographs were chosen by researchers based on their ability to elicit emotional responses.

Participants were asked to rate how positive the photo was on a scale of -5 (extremely negative) to +5 (extremely positive). After viewing the photos a second time, they were asked to rate how much emotional reaction the photo caused them, ranging from 0 (little or no emotion) to 10 (extreme amount of emotion).

Those who received the acetaminophen rated the positive photos as less positive than those who did not receive the drug, and rated the negative photos as less negative as well. The results were the same for the emotional reactions.

One possible outcome from the first experiment was that the drug blunts people’s broader judgments of everything, not just emotions, so the second study attempted to study that possible effect, the release said.

In the second study, half the participants still received the drug and half the placebo, and they still rated photos, but this time each participant stated how much blue they saw in each photo. The results were the same as the first study in terms of the difference in the emotional reactions to the photos, but there was no difference in terms of the amount of blue content regardless of whether a participant received acetaminophen.

Way, the assistant professor in the psychology department, is actively researching other developments, including the possibility of similar anti-inflammatory effects in the brain that result from ibuprofen and aspirin.

“Previously, people would take ibuprofen or aspirin for pain, fever and inflammation, but Tylenol for only pain and fever, but this research suggests that Tylenol has the same anti-inflammatory effect, at least in the brain,” Way said. “We would next like to test what neurotransmitters acetaminophen is acting on to blunt these emotions.”

Some students, meanwhile, said they aren’t really sure about what these results mean.

Brian Veverka, a fourth-year in physical education, said he hasn’t noticed these effects when he’s taken acetaminophen.

“Even though I don’t take Tylenol frequently, I have not visibly seen any emotional effects after taking the pill,” he said.

But the researchers found that the people who took the pain reliever during the study did not seem to realize that they were acting differently, Way said in the press release.

Another student, Robert Bruner, a second-year in criminology and psychology, said he is skeptical of using medicines, and added that he doesn’t generally take them “because (he’s) not a fan of the side effects.”

Winston Gordon, a fourth-year in exercise science, said he would also like to see more research done on this topic.

“With two small studies, I would have to see its repeatability and possible pharmacological mechanism to deem the effects conclusive,” he said.

Durso cautioned against reducing acetaminophen use if it is needed as medication, citing the lack of pharmacological knowledge.

“If acetaminophen helps with your pain, then you should continue taking it in whatever capacity that is recommended by your physician,” he said.

Durso said there is the possibility of more research being conducted to find out if there are certain cases where having this emotion-relieving effect is a good thing.

“We suspect that individuals who are relatively more sensitive to experiencing emotional highs and lows than other people may be the most affected by the psycho-neurochemical processes that acetaminophen is acting on, but this remains to be examined,” he said.

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