For Tony Y., 37, healing from heartbreak is slow and incomplete. Each of several exes is associated with a cluster of sore memories. Although he loves the Blue Ridge Mountains, he can’t visit because they remind him of a romantic holiday years ago.
Like some 30 to 40 percent of depressed patients, Tony hasn’t had success with current anti-depressants. One day, psychiatrists may be able to offer him a new kind of opioid, an anti-depressant for people suffering from the cruel pain of rejection.
A Surprising Discovery
As we move through life, rejections — bullying in school, romantic breakups, and divorces — are powerful triggers to depressive episodes, observes David Hsu, a neuroscientist at Stony Brook University School of Medicine in Long Island, New York. If a new drug made them less painful, he argues, it could relieve or even prevent major depression.
Our bodies naturally produce opioids to soothe physical pain, and opioid drugs like morphine and oxycodone work by plugging into the same receptors in our brains. The same natural opioids may also respond to emotional hurts, and painkillers can dramatically affect mood. Today’s epidemic of opioid abuse raises the question: How many lives might have been saved if we had a safe, non-addictive option for medicating emotional pain?
Already one anti-depressant, tianeptine, locks into the mu opioid receptor, the target of morphine and oxycodone. Scientists knew that tianeptine, prescribed in some countries in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, acted differently than the most common anti-depressants in use today, which affect the levels of other brain chemicals, serotonin and norepinephrine. But the discovery in 2014 that tianeptine tapped the mu receptor was a “huge surprise,” says co-author Jonathan Javitch, chief of the Division of Molecular Therapeutics at Columbia University.
The news arrived when scientists’ basic understanding of depression is in flux; viewed biologically, it may cover several disorders. One of them could hinge on opioids. It’s possible that some people release fewer opioids naturally or that the receptors for it are less effective.
Javitch has launched a startup, Kures, to make tianeptine more effective and convenient and to find other opioid-modulators. That may seem quixotic in the midst of an opioid epidemic, but tianeptine doesn’t create dependency in low, prescription doses and has been used safely around the world for decades. To identify likely patients, cofounder Andrew Kruegel is looking for ways to “segment the depressed population by measures that have to do with opioid release,” he says.
Is Emotional Pain Actually “Pain”?
No one imagines that the pain from rejection or loss is the same as pain from a broken leg. Physical pain is two perceptions—a sensory perception and an “affective” one, which makes pain unpleasant.
The sensory perception, processed by regions of the brain called the primary and secondary somatosensory cortices and the posterior insula, tells us whether the pain is in your arm or your leg, how strong it is and whether it is a sting, ache, or has some other quality. The affective perception, in another part of the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula, tells us that we want the pain to stop, fast! When people with lesions in the latter areas experience a stimulus that ordinarily would be painful, they don’t mind it.
Science now suggests that emotional pain arises in the affective brain circuits. Exploration of an overlap between physical and what research psychologists call “social pain” has heated up since the mid-2000s. Animal evidence goes back to the 1970s: babies separated from their mothers showed less distress when given morphine, and more if dosed with naloxone, the opioid antagonist.
Parents, of course, face the question of whether Baby feels alone or wet whenever she howls. And the answer is: both hurt. Being abandoned is the ultimate threat in our early life, and it makes sense that a brain system to monitor social threats would piggyback upon an existing system for pain. Piggybacking is a feature of evolution. An ancestor who felt “hurt” when threatened by rejection might learn adaptive behavior: to cooperate or run.
In 2010, a large multi-university team led by Nathan DeWall at the University of Kentucky, reported that acetaminophen (Tylenol) reduced social pain. Undergraduates took 500 mg of acetaminophen upon awakening and at bedtime every day for three weeks and reported nightly about their day using a previously-tested “Hurt Feelings Scale,” rating how strongly they agreed with questions like, “Today, being teased hurt my feelings.”
Over the weeks, their reports of hurt feelings steadily declined, while remaining flat in a control group that took placebos. In a second experiment, the research group showed that, compared to controls, people who had taken acetaminophen for three weeks showed less brain activity in the affective brain circuits while they experienced rejection during a virtual ball-tossing game. Later, Hsu’s brain scan research supported the idea that rejection triggers the mu opioid receptor system, which normally provides pain-dampening opioids.
More evidence comes from nonhuman primates with lesions in the affective circuits: They cry less when separated from caregivers or social groups.
Heartbreak seems to lie in those regions: women with major depression are more hurt by romantic rejection than normal controls are and show more activity in those areas in brain scans, Hsu found. Also, factors that make us more vulnerable to rejection — like low self-esteem — are linked to more activity in the key areas, studies show.
The trait “high rejection sensitivity” increases your risk of depression more than “global neuroticism” does, Hsu observes, and predicts a poor recovery from depression. Pain sensitivity is another clue: People with a gene linked to it seem to be more hurt by social exclusion. Once you’re depressed, you become more rejection-sensitive and prone to pain—a classic bad feedback loop.
Helen Mayberg, a neurologist renowned for her study of brain circuits in depression, sees, as Hsu does, the possibility of preventing depressions. “Nobody would suggest we treat routine bad social pain with drugs. But it is true that in susceptible people, losing a partner, for example, can lead to a full-blown depression,” says Mayberg, who is the founding director of The Center for Advanced Circuit Therapeutics at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine in New York City. “Ideally, we’d have biomarkers to distinguish when loss becomes complicated grief and then depression, and we might prevent the transition with a drug. It would be like taking medication when you feel the warning symptoms of a headache to prevent a full-blown migraine.”
A Way Out of the Opioid Crisis?
The exploration of social pain should lead us to a deeper understanding of pain, beyond the sharp distinctions between “physical” and “psychological.” Finding our way out of the current crisis may require that deeper understanding. About half of the people with opioid prescriptions have mental health disorders. “I expect there are a lot of people using street opioids—heroin or prescriptions purchased from others–to self-medicate psychological pain,” Kreugel says.
What we may need, he suggests, is “a new paradigm for using opioids in psychiatry: low, sub-analgesic, sub-euphoric dosing.” But so far it hasn’t been easy. Investors don’t flock to fund psychiatric drugs and in 2018, the word opioid is poison.
As for Tony Y., he’s struggled for three years to recover from his most serious relationship. “Driving around highways looking at exit signs toward places we visited together sometimes fills me with unbearable anguish,” he admits. “And because we used to do so much bird watching together, sometimes a mere glimpse of a random bird sets me off.” He perks up at the idea of a heartbreak drug. “If the side effects didn’t seem bad, I would consider it, absolutely.”