Research shows the brain releases natural painkillers during rejection to ease emotional pain. The discovery may help our understanding of depression and social anxieties.
What’s more, people who score high on a personality trait called resilience—the ability to adjust to environmental change—had the highest amount of natural painkiller activation.
The research team, based at the University of Michigan’s Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, combined advanced brain-scanning that can track chemical release in the brain with a model of social rejection based on online dating.
They focused on the mu-opioid receptor system in the brain—the same system that the team has studied for years in relation to response to physical pain. Over more than a decade, their work has shown that when a person feels physical pain, their brains release chemicals called opioids into the space between neurons, dampening pain signals.
David T. Hsu, the lead author of the new paper that appears in the journal Nature, says the research on social rejection grew out of recent studies by others, which suggest that the brain pathways that are activated during physical pain and social pain are similar.
This is the first study to peer into the human brain to show that the opioid system is activated during social rejection,” says Hsu, a research assistant professor of psychiatry. “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.”