Study: Anti-Anxiety Medication Could Decrease Empathy

Two hands held across wooden tableRats who took the drug midazolam, an anti-anxiety medication, were less likely to free trapped companions than those who did not take the drug, according to a study published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology. These results suggest the drug might reduce empathy in rats. The study did not test the correlation in humans, but because both humans and rats are social animals with similar bodies and brains, researchers say it is possible midazolam might have a similar effect on humans.

Midazolam is marketed under several trade names, including Hypnovel, Versed, and Dormicum.

Could an Anti-Anxiety Medication Reduce Empathy?

The study relied on research from a previous study, in which one rat was placed in a restraining tube. The rat’s cagemate could free the rat by nudging the door open. Rats quickly mastered the skills necessary to free trapped cagemates, and researchers interpreted this as a sign of empathy for the trapped rats.

For the current study, researchers repeated the test, but injected some rats with midazolam. Injected rats did not free their trapped cagemates. They did, however, open the trap door when it contained chocolate chips. This suggests midazolam did not undermine the rats’ ability to open the door—just their willingness to help another rat.

To test whether freeing a cagemate was due to a stress response rather than empathy, the team conducted a second trial. For this study, researchers gave the rats nadolol, a blood pressure medication that reduces symptoms of stress, such as increased heart rate or high blood pressure. The rats who took nadolol still helped their cagemates. The researchers say these findings suggest rats do not free cagemates to avoid the stress of seeing a trapped companion; instead, empathy is likely the motivating factor.

A variety of drugs can change behavior, even when those medications are not specifically designed to do so. Earlier this year, another study suggested acetaminophen—the pain reliever found in over-the-counter drugs such as Tylenol—could also reduce empathy.

The Connection Between Anxiety and Empathy

The study’s authors are unsure why midazolam appeared to dull empathy in rats. It is unlikely that reducing anxiety reduces empathy, or that anxiety is necessary for empathy. Previous research has found stress could block empathy. A 2015 study found stress-related brain chemicals could reduce the ability to feel empathy for others.

The research has not looked at the effect of midazolam in people, so those concerned about their empathy levels should talk to their doctors before changing their medication. Given the research on the connection between anxiety and reduced empathy, it is possible that cessation of an anti-anxiety drug could also dull empathy.

References:

  1. Anti-anxiety medication limits empathetic behavior in rats. (2016, June 27). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/06/160627132941.htm
  2. Bartal, I. B., Shan, H., Molasky, N., Murray, T., Williams, J., Decety, J., & Mason, P. (2016). Anxiolytic treatment impairs helping behavior in rats. Frontiers in Psychology. doi:10.1101/044180
  3. Martin, L., Hathaway, G., Isbester, K., Mirali, S., Acland, E., Niederstrasser, N., . . . Mogil, J. (2015). Reducing social stress elicits emotional contagion of pain in mouse and human strangers. Current Biology, 25(3), 326-332. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2014.11.028

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  • Tia

    Tia

    June 30th, 2016 at 10:33 AM

    This scares me a lot because I just started a new medication and this is one of the potential side effects that is listed. I don’t want to become a shell of who I am, I just want to be able to go through my life without feeling so nervous and anxious and panicky all the time.
    Should I forgo the medication and try something else? I’m confused right now as to what the next step for me should be.

  • Patricia S. Ph.D.

    Patricia S. Ph.D.

    July 1st, 2016 at 7:17 AM

    midazalom is not used frequently for anxiety in humans. The entire issue of empathy is questionable when comparing humans to rats. Empathy requires a “mental map” of the other’s (rat or human) behavioral patterns and we have no evidence of the rat brain having that high level function. Anxiety/fear will wipe out many behaviors, so there are a series of assumptions and unprovable hypotheses in this research. Lousy research,too- no operational definition of “empathy” in rats

  • Jo

    Jo

    July 1st, 2016 at 10:41 PM

    hi Tia, do you try other things like yoga class, meditation of any sort and also do you know about deep breathing practices? I have found all of these things and more like exercise helps alot to reduce anxiety. Drinking extra water, constant sips is also good. You probably are already doing these but just in case and also to go to courses or therapy about it to learn coping skills – that is also helpful. I do think meds should only be used as a last resort and only short term. Its hard but a good overhaul of our habits etc can help so much!! like reduce coffee, sugar. Currently I’m tryng to go to bed earlier as that affects mood and energy too. All the best to you. Isn’t is lovely that rats rescue their buddies? :)

  • Dawn V D.

    Dawn V D.

    July 3rd, 2016 at 12:16 PM

    This may sound shocking, but I wouldn’t mind having my empathy reduced. I have been a lifelong target of abusers either narcissistic or neurotic BECAUSE of my overwhelming empathy and sensitivity. I’ve had enough, yet I can’t seem to override the signals I put out that draw opportunistic people to me. I’d be glad to be rid of at least some of it.

  • Tia

    Tia

    July 5th, 2016 at 2:34 PM

    Thanks for some of those suggestions JO!

  • Al

    Al

    July 6th, 2016 at 10:46 AM

    So they may decrease empathy but they also decrease the anxiety that you feel. For some people that is actually going to feel like the more important thing.

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