Under the Hood

Anxiety Medication, Midazolam, May Lessen Empathy And Increase Selfish Behavior

Anxiety disorders can be characterized by the tendency to overthink situations, however, a new study suggests that the popular anti-anxiety medication midazolam may work a little too well at helping anxiety patients “not sweat the small stuff.” It actually may make them considerably unemotional and apathetic to the hardships of others.

For the study, now published online in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers from the University of Chicago Medical Center tested the empathy lab rats showed other lab rats in distress by giving them the opportunity to release their companions from a closed container. Some of the rats were given the anti-anxiety medication midazolam, while the control rats were not given any types of medication.

pills Mice on certain anti-anxiety medications were less likely to help out others. Pixabay, Public Domain

Although these control mice attempted to free their trapped companions, the rats given midazolam were observed ignoring their trapped friends time and again. The researchers know the medication did not interfere with the rats’ strength or ability to open the container because the medicated rats opened the container when there were chocolate chips on the inside. Instead, it seemed that the medicated rats just didn’t care enough to help out a friend in need.

"We take that as a sign that the rats given midazolam don't find the outcome rewarding, presumably because they didn't find it a troubling situation in the first place,"  Haozhe Shan, an undergraduate student at UChicago and researcher involved with the study, said in a recent statement.

According to the research, these results show that rats, and most likely all mammals for that matter, help others because it makes them feel good. The drug numbed the “high” that the animals got from being altruistic, so they no longer felt motivated to lend a helping paw.

"Helping others could be your new drug. Go help some people and you'll feel really good," said lead researcher Peggy Mason in a statement. "I think that's a mammalian trait that has developed through evolution. Helping another is good for the species."

These findings could have important implications for human health since anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting an estimated 40 million Americans. Although occasional anxiety is a normal part of life, the overwhelming and often unprovoked anxiety experienced by those with an anxiety condition can be debilitating and lead to real health problems such as irritability, muscle tension, and difficulty sleeping. The condition is more common in women, individuals under 35, and people living in North America and Western Europe.  

New research has suggested that psychedelic drugs may be useful for those suffering from certain mental health conditions, anxiety included. For example, psychotherapy in collaboration with LSD has previously been found to reduce anxiety caused by terminal illness, mushrooms may be helpful in treating alcoholism, and ecstasy lowered PTSD symptoms, Medical Daily reported.

Unfortunately, drugs such as mushrooms and ecstasy have a bad stigma which may prevent them from being prescribed to those who most need them, but hopefully new research could help to alleviate this stigma.

Source: IBA Bartal, H Shan, NMR. Molasky, TM. Murray, JZ. Williams, J Decety, P Mason. Anxiolytic Treatment Impairs Helping Behavior in Rats. Frontiers in Psychology . 2016

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