STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Tylenol. The medicine is meant to ease minor physical pain, and it works. New research finds that the active ingredient, acetaminophen, has another effect. It may dull emotional pain. And you thought that's what the whiskey was for. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Last year, researchers at Ohio State University designed a very simple experiment. They recruited a bunch of undergraduates and showed them a series of emotionally charged pictures. Some were upsetting. There were images of starving children and car crash victims. Others were very happy, pictures of vacation spots and smiling children. And researcher Baldwin Way says in each case, the students' emotional reactions were what you might expect.
BALDWIN WAY: When the undergraduates saw these images of babies and beaches and other positive images, they had a very warm feeling and positive emotional response.
AUBREY: And when they saw disturbing images, they had negative responses. But here's where things get interesting. When the undergraduates were given a dose of acetaminophen, equivalent to two Extra Strength Tylenol, their emotional responses to the images faded.
WAY: When people were taking acetaminophen, they had reduced feelings. They felt less negative and saw less negativity.
AUBREY: So in essence, it was sort of taking the edge off the negativity?
WAY: Yes, so that, this drug, when you see negative images or positive images, numbs your response to it. It blunts your overall feeling that you're experiencing.
AUBREY: Way says the findings are pretty convincing given that the students did not know if they were being given acetaminophen or a placebo. Now as surprising as this may sound, it turns out that it isn't the first study to demonstrate that acetaminophen may influence emotions. A few years back, Nathan DeWall, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky, did a similar experiment. He looked at whether a daily dose of acetaminophen given to a group of college students would influence how they experience the sting of rejection or other hurtful events. And he also found that the drug numbed their responses.
NATHAN DEWALL: It's a subtle effect.
AUBREY: But he thinks it's entirely plausible because the way we process physical pain overlaps a lot with how we process emotional pain.
DEWALL: When you think of social pain, the pain of rejection and physical pain, there is commonality in how we talk about those experiences, how we act in reaction to those experiences. And what these studies show is that how our brain pathways respond to these experiences is also very similar.
AUBREY: So how about popping a Tylenol whenever you've had an emotional upset? Not a good idea, says emergency room doc Lewis Nelson of New York University. Acetaminophen, he says, is widely used, but it's not without risks.
LEWIS NELSON: Certainly taking unnecessary uses and doses beyond what would be recommended could be very dangerous.
AUBREY: Nelson says he'd like to see more evidence that acetaminophen really can exert this emotional influence.
NELSON: There are a lot of drugs that have been on the market for a long time, and then we learn new things about them and we're surprised.
AUBREY: But so far, Nelson says, he's not entirely convinced. Acetaminophen is among the most widely used painkillers. So if there is this effect on our emotions, why has it taken decades for us to notice? Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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