Antianxiety medications can be enormously helpful to people bedeviled by severe anxiety -- no doubt about that. But by tamping down anxious feelings, could it be that these so-called "anxiolytic" drugs are blunting our empathy and rendering us less willing to lend a helping hand to those in need?
That's the word from the scientists responsible for a provocative new study showing that lab rats given a drug called midazolam (MDZ) were less willing than untreated control rats to help release a trapped cage mate.
"With the MDZ on board, they were unable to feel/catch/'contage' the trapped rat's distress and thus were not motivated," Dr. Peggy Mason, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Chicago and the leader of the research, told The Huffington Post in an email.
She called the finding "really amazing," adding in a videotaped statement (above) that "in the context of today's society, which is a highly medicated society, where lots of people are taking psychoactive drugs that might blunt their experience of negative affect, our results would suggest that that will also blunt helping."
That sounds scary. But is it really the case?
Dr. Norman Sussman, a professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical Center, isn't convinced. He said it's notoriously difficult to draw conclusions about humans from studies involving rodents or other animals. What's more, he said, midazolam is a powerful injectable drug that generally is used not for anxiety but as a sedative for surgical patients.
"In every way you look at it, this study is not relevant to clinical experience," he said. "There are too many questions about why it was set up this way. You can't draw very much from this at all."
For the study, which was published June 8, 2016, in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers watched what happened when rats were placed inside a cage containing a rat trapped inside a clear plastic tube.
Untreated (control) rats were quick to open the door to the restraint to free the trapped rat. But rats injected with the midazolam made no effort to open the door even though they could see and hear their trapped cage mate.
It wasn't that the rats on midazolam were physically unable to open the restraint door. When it was chocolate chips instead of another rat inside the tube, the drugged rodents had no trouble opening the door to get at the treat. It was that they simply didn't care that the other rat was trapped.
Mason said the new research might lead people to rethink their choices when it comes to coping with anxiety.
"One approach is to dull or dampen uncomfortable emotions and another approach is to learn to tolerate these unpleasant experiences," she said in the email. While drug therapy might be a good choice for people with crippling anxiety, others "may want to take a different approach given this information."
But Dr. Dolores Malaspina, another professor of psychiatry at NYU, sounded a different note. In an email to HuffPost Science, she said that even if certain medications do blunt empathy, "suffering from an anxiety disorder has an even greater disruptive effect."
In any case, Sussman said, good medical care requires doctors to prescribe anxiolytic drugs only in the case of severe anxiety.
Whatever the takeaway from the new study, previous research suggests that psychiatric drugs may be messing with our empathy. The popular painkiller acetaminophen has been tied to a reduced ability to show empathy, and certain antidepressants have been linked to indifference.