The Risks of Acetaminophen

Acetaminophen is the most common drug ingredient in the United States.  It is an ingredient in more then 600 medicines.  About a quarter of all Americans take acetaminophen every week.  However, there are risks to acetaminophen according to an article by Amy Ellis Nutt  in the Health Section of the May 17 2016 edition of the Washington Post, titled, “You don’t feel my pain? Blame acetaminophen.”

The article report research published online  in the journal Social  Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience conducted  by scientists from the National Institutes of Health and Ohio State University.  The results come from two experiments involving more than 200 college students.

In one experiment 80 participants were asked to drink a liquid.  Half the participants received something containing 1,000 milligrams of acetaminopheh.  The other half constituted the control group that drank something without the drug.  An hour later all were asked  to rate the pain experienced by characteristics in eight different fictional scenarios.  In some of the stories, the characters went through a physical trauma, whereas in others an emotional trauma.  In general, those who had taken the acetaminophen rated the pain of the characters as less severe than those who had taken the placebo.

The second experiment exposed participants to brief blasts of white noise.  As one who has experienced brief blasts of white noise, these are extremely discomforting.  They were then asked to rate the pain of another (anonymous) study participant who had also been subjected to the blasts of white noise.  Research participants who had received acetaminophen rated the pain of this anonymous individual as being less severe than those who had taken the placebo.

In another test in which participants had to judge online skits involving social rejection, they showed the same effects as in the noise experiments.  “In this case, the participants had the chance to empathize with the suffering of someone who they thought was going through a socially painful experience.  Still those who took the acetaminophen  showed a reduction in empathy.  They weren’t as concerned about the rejected person’s hurt feelings.

This research built on previous studies identifying a brain region that appears to be key to a person’s empathic response.  The anterior insula, located deep in the folds between the front and side of the brain, is a place where mind and body are integrated.  It also plays a key role in awareness, including emotional awareness.  The less pain a person feels, the less able he or she is to empathize with someone else’s pain.

The researchers note, “Because empathy regulates prosocial and antisocial behavior, this drug-induced reduction in empathy raise concerns about the broader social side effects of acetaminophen.”

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