Mental & Emotional Health

The Brain and "Social Pain"

When it comes to physical vs. emotional pain, the brain seems to have a separate area to process each, new research shows. Until now, experts have believed that the different kinds of pain went through the same circuits.

But investigators from the University of Colorado Boulder have demonstrated that the two kinds of pain are processed by distinct neural circuits.

The researchers used a technique called multivariate pattern analysis to examine brain scans that were taken while people looked at a picture of someone who had rejected them. They then compared those results with brain scans from the same people when they received a painful heat stimulus.

The result: different kinds of pain went through different areas of the brain.

“Physical pain and social rejection do activate similar regions of the brain,” said CU-Boulder graduate student Choong-Wan Woo, lead author of the study. “But by using a new analysis tool, we were able to look more closely and see that they are actually quite different.”

The study results are important, researchers said, because they show specifically how the brain creates “distressing experiences.” Ultimately, that knowledge could lead to new targets for treatments related to social-pain disorders.

The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.

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