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Social Rejection Fought In Brain

Update Date: Oct 11, 2013 10:23 AM EDT

Social rejection may be comforted by natural painkillers in the brain according to a recent study.

"This is the first study to peer into the human brain to show that the opioid system is activated during social rejection," said Hsu, lead author of the study and research assistant professor of psychiatry, in a news release. "In general, opioids have been known to be released during social distress and isolation in animals, but where this occurs in the human brain has not been shown until now."

Researchers analyzed a study of 18 adults who were asked to view photos and fictitious personal profiles of hundreds of other adults mocking the usage of an online dating website. They were each asked to select someone who they might be most interested in

They were then placed in a brain imaging machine called a PET scanner where they received the news that the persons they were attracted to had no interest in them.

Before the study was done, researchers made sure that the participants understood the fictitious nature of the project.

"Brain scans made during these moments showed opioid release, measured by looking at the availability of mu-opioid receptors on brain cells," according to the University of Michigan Health System.

Researchers noticed that even though false rejection was involved the brain detects an emotion and immediately responds to it.

"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," said UMHS.

The study suggests that the pathway for opioid release in social rejection may be similar to the brain response of physical pain.

According to UMHS, "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, said Hsu. "This suggests that opioid release in this structure during social rejection may be protective or adaptive."

Researchers hope that their findings may help them seek insight on how those who suffer from depression or social anxiety may have an abnormal opioid response.

"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," said Hsu. "Similarly, these individuals may also have less opioid release during positive social interactions, and therefore may not gain as much from social support."

The findings are published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

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