The pain of social rejection lasts longer for depressed people, a new study finds.
Depressed people’s brains produce less natural pain killers in response to social rejection.
The research may help explain why depression can be so resistant to treatment.
Dr David Hsu, the study’s lead author, explained:
“Every day we experience positive and negative social interactions.
Our findings suggest that a depressed person’s ability to regulate emotions during these interactions is compromised, potentially because of an altered opioid system.
This may be one reason for depression’s tendency to linger or return, especially in a negative social environment.
This builds on our growing understanding that the brain’s opioid system may help an individual feel better after negative social interactions, and sustain good feelings after positive social interactions.”
The study scanned the brains of 17 depressed people and compared them with 18 non-depressed people.
Experimenters simulated social rejection by having them choose a date from a series of profiles.
Then people were told they had been rebuffed by their potential dates.
The brains of non-depressed people pumped out natural painkillers (opioids) in response.
But the brains of depressed people showed reduced production of the painkillers.
The yellow and red areas below indicate the release of painkillers in healthy and depressed people.
After being rejected, depressed people also showed much lower motivation to connect with other people socially.
The study’s results are published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry (Hsu et al., 2015).
Dr Jon-Kar Zubieta, one of the study’s authors, said:
“Social stressors are important factors that precipitate or worsen illnesses such as depression, anxiety and other neuropsychiatric conditions.
This study examined mechanisms that are involved in the suppression of those stress responses.
The findings suggest novel potential targets for medication development that directly or indirectly target these circuits, and biological factors that affect variation between individuals in recovery from this otherwise chronic and disabling illness.”
Depressed people and acceptance
The experiment also tested the effect of social acceptance — when people were told their chosen date was interested in them.
One surprise was that depressed people felt just as happy and accepted as non-depressed people — but only at first.
Unfortunately for depressed people, the feeling did not last that long.
The researchers now hope to look at a wider range of factors, as Dr Hsu explained:
“Of course, everyone responds differently to their social environment.
To help us understand who is most affected by social stressors, we’re planning to investigate the influence of genes, personality, and the environment on the brain’s ability to release opioids during rejection and acceptance.”
Rejection image from Shutterstock and brain imaging courtesy of University of Michigan