The neuroscience behind medications for psychiatric conditions like depression, or anxiety is complex and often the subject of research. Specifically, with anti-anxiety medication, doctors are concerned with addiction issues, dependence and other side effects. A new study from the University of Chicago suggests that some anti-anxiety medications can also result in a loss of empathy.
The study used lab rats who were given midazolam, an anti-anxiety medication, and showed that the animals were less likely to free trapped companions because the drug lessened their empathy.
Many previous studies show that rats do seem to care about other rats that are in distress. Many of these studies showed that rats would help fellow animals that were trapped in a lab created restraint. The research at the University of Chicago, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, documented the actions of rats treated with midazolam to see if this helpful trait would stay the same. It didn’t seem to.
The rats who had been given the anxiety drug did not open the door to a restrainer device containing a trapped rat, although control rats routinely freed their trapped companions. It wasn’t that Midazolam somehow impaired the physical ability of the rats to open the door and free the trapped rats. The study showed that if there was a reward, such as a chocolate that was given for opening the door, the rats were capable of completing the task. The study shed light on the emotional reaction that was lessened in the rats treated with midazolam.
In a press release from the university, Peggy Mason, PhD, professor of neurobiology stated, "The rats help each other because they care. They need to share the affect of the trapped rat in order to help, and that's a fundamental finding that tells us something about how we operate, because we're mammals like rats too."
In earlier research it was thought that the stress response triggered by seeing a trapped rat, would put the adrenal glands and sympathetic nervous system into action and that is why a rat would help another rat. Beta blockers were given in these studies and showed that when the heart rate and BP were treated, the rats would still help free their fellow cage mates. It wasn’t the physical changes driving the desire to help, but rather an emotional response which was dampened and nearly eliminated by the administration of the anti-anxiety medications.
The team at the University of Chicago also ran statistical models on the likelihood of rats who were not treated with midazolam compared to those that were to rescue other rats. The ones who had been given the anti-anxiety meds were far less likely to help a trapped rat than those who had not been given medication. These results suggested that no matter how many times the drugged rats had been given an opportunity to help out, more often they would not and this could only be due to the effects of the drugs.
Mason stated that, “Helping others could be your new drug. Go help some people and you'll feel really good. I think that's a mammalian trait that has developed through evolution. Helping another is good for the species said that this research further confirms the previous research that rats, and by extension other mammals -- including humans -- are motivated by empathy and find the act of helping others gratifying.” The video below talks more about the study, check it out.
Sources: University of Chicago
, Frontiers in Psychology