UCLA Professor Identifies Connection Between Social And Physical Pain

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Physical and emotional pain are rigid and seemingly opposite categories of human experiences, but their actual physical impact on the brain is surprisingly similar, UCLA neuroscientist Naomi Eisenberger explained during a talk today at the Global Brain Health and Performance Summit presented by The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. As Eisenberger noted during her presentation, researchers have proven a link between brain inflammation and depression, and discovered intriguing parallels between how the brain processes physical and emotional pain. “Experiences of social pain tend to activate neural regions involved in physical pain,” Eisenberger says.

Eisenberger’s work suggests that there’s an important physical component to a person’s emotional and social perception. She discussed recent research showing that brain inflammation, which is one result of constant stress, as well as a number of fairly common viruses and bacteria, can have a major impact on how a person processes common social situations. “Inflammation affects social experience,” Eisenberger said. “It enhances our sensitivity to negative social stimuli as well as other kinds of rewarding social stimuli.”

Eisenberger’s presentation touched on new research that tracked brain activity in real time. In one such study, research subjects placed in MRI machines played a video game that simulated social rejection. The results showed that feelings of rejection were deeper and more acute among subjects with brain inflammation. The opposite was also true: feelings of social attachment were greater among research subjects with brain inflammation who had been shown a picture of a friend or loved one. Negative and positive social experiences both had a notable impact on subjects with existing brain inflammation—a condition that is itself considered a possible cause of depression.

Eisenberger touched on one possible explanation for this phenomena. “Maybe when individuals are in this sick and vulnerable state it’s magnifying the difference between friend and foe. It’s making us more sensitive to people who could threaten ... or help us.” Eisenberger’s work hints at deep connections between how the brain processes physical and emotional stimuli—a link that could prove to be a promising new area of neurological research.

Dr. Ali Rezai, Director of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance. For more, visit The Huffington Post’s Brain Health page.