The brain treats psychological pain in the same way it treats physical pain, producing a sort of ‘natural painkillers’, reveals a new study.

According to scientists from the Medical School of the University of Michigan, the brain activates the same ‘painkiller’ mechanisms to relieve mental pain, caused by social rejection, as those it activates in case of physical injury.

The study revealed that volunteers with strong psychological resilience, i.e. the ability to adapt easily to changes in the environment, showed increased activity of the mechanism producing “natural painkillers.”

It has long been known that when the body is experiencing physical pain, the brain releases opioids in the areas between neurons, which makes pain signals less pronounced.

The natural “painkiller”

During the experiments, the experts asked 18 adults to look at fake profile pictures of hundreds of other adults and indicate the people they found most attractive, i.e. what they would do and if they registered on a dating website.

Then, while the volunteers were undergoing positron emission tomography (PET scan), the researchers announced that the people they had chosen in the previous step were not interested in them.

The scientists examined the opioid receptor system of the brain, which hitherto had seemed to be associated with the treatment of physical pain.

Brain imaging of individuals who were rejected by the hypothetical object of desire showed strong activity of the opioid receptor, thereby the body’s natural painkillers were released.

Before starting the experiment, the volunteers knew that the dating profiles were not real. Nevertheless, the experienced feeling of social rejection was enough to activate this response.

“This is the first study that shows that the opioid receptor system is activated by rejection,” said Dr. David Hsu. “This could mean that the release of these substances probably has a protective or adaptive nature against social rejection.”

“In animals, opioids are released in times of stress or isolation, however, in humans no similar effect was observed till now” concludes Dr. Hsu.

These interesting findings were published in the journal «Molecular Psychiatry».

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