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Dr. David Hsu, University of Michigan – The Pain of Social Rejection

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. David Hsu of the University of Michigan explains how the brain deals with the pain of social rejection. 

David Hsu is an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan. His research interests include the neuroimaging of mood and anxiety disorders using fMRI and PET scans, the neurobiology of stress in the context of social environments, and the neuroanatomical pathways for emotional responses to stress.  He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

About Dr. Hsu

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Dr. David Hsu – The Pain of Social Rejection

We recently published a study in the journal Molecular Psychiatry showing that the brain releases chemicals called opioids during social rejection, in other words when one is not liked by another.  To give you some background, the brain has natural painkillers called opioids that are released when you are in physical pain.  Our study in 18 healthy adults shows that opioids are also released when study subjects are given information that they are not liked by others.  This finding suggests that the brain uses opioids to help ease social pain.  The function of opioid release during social rejection is likely a protective mechanism to help you recover from feeling hurt after social rejection, much like opioids are released to help you recover from physical injury.

You may ask why would the brain use opioids to cope with both physical and emotional pain?  Well, if you think about the most emotionally painful experiences you’ve ever had, they are likely to have a social component – a romantic break-up/divorce, loss of a loved one, social isolation, and so on.  Therefore, it makes sense that the brain would have a system that treats social pain as threatening as physical pain.   In other words, social acceptance into groups and intimate relationships may be just as important for survival as avoiding physical injury.

Interestingly, we also found that opioids are released during social acceptance – when someone says that they like you.  It is likely that your brain’s opioids help you recover from pain, as well as mediating the rewarding experience of social acceptance.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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