Sunday, February 11, 2018

Policy Insights from The Neurocritic: Alarm Over Acetaminophen, Ibuprofen Blocking Emotion Is Overblown

Just in time for Valentine's Day, floats in a raft of misleading headlines:

Scientists have found the cure for a broken heart

Painkillers may also mend a broken heart

Taking painkillers could ease heartaches - as well as headaches

Paracetamol and ibuprofen could ease heartaches - as well as headaches

If Tylenol and Advil were so effective in “mending broken hearts”, “easing heartaches”, and providing a “cure for a broken heart”, we would be a society of perpetually happy automatons, wiping away the suffering of breakup and divorce with a mere dose of acetaminophen. We'd have Tylenol epidemics and Advil epidemics to rival the scourge of the present Opioid Epidemic.

Really, people,1 words have meanings. If you exaggerate, readers will believe statements that are blown way out of proportion. And they may even start taking doses of drugs that can harm their kidneys and livers.

These media pieces also have distressing subtitles:

Common painkillers that kill empathy
... some popular painkillers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen have been found to reduce people’s empathy, dull their emotions and change how people process information.

A new scientific review of studies suggests over-the-counter pain medication could be having all sorts of psychological effects that consumers do not expect.

Not only do they block people’s physical pain, they also block emotions.

The authors of the study, published in the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, write: “In many ways, the reviewed findings are alarming. Consumers assume that when they take an over-the-counter pain medication, it will relieve their physical symptoms, but they do not anticipate broader psychological effects.”

Cheap painkillers affect how people respond to hurt feelings, 'alarming' review reveals
Taking painkillers could ease the pain of hurt feelings as well as headaches, new research has discovered.

The review of studies by the University of California found that women taking drugs such as ibuprofen and paracetamol reported less heartache from emotionally painful experiences, compared with those taking a placebo.

However, the same could not be said for men as the study found their emotions appeared to be heightened by taking the pills.

Researchers said the findings of the review were 'in many ways...alarming'.

I'm here to tell you these worries are greatly exaggerated. Just like there's a Trump tweet for every occasion, there's a Neurocritic post for most of these studies (see below).

A new review in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences has prompted the recent flurry of headlines. Ratner et al. (2018) reviewed the literature on OTC pain medications.
. . . This work suggests that drugs like acetaminophen and ibuprofen might influence how people experience emotional distress, process cognitive discrepancies, and evaluate stimuli in their environment. These studies have the potential to change our understanding of how popular pain medications influence the millions of people who take them. However, this research is still in its infancy. Further studies are necessary to address the robustness of reported findings and fully characterize the psychological effects of these drugs.

The studies are potentially transformative, yet the research is still in its infancy. The press didn't read the “further studies are necessary” caveat. But I did find one article that took a more modest stance:

Do OTC Pain Relievers Have Psychological Effects?
Ratner wrote that the findings are “in many ways alarming,” but he told MD Magazine that his goal is not so much to raise alarm as it is to prompt additional research. “Something that I want to strongly emphasize is that there are really only a handful of studies that have looked at the psychological effects of these drugs,” he said.

Ratner said a number of questions still need to be answered. For one, there is not enough evidence out there to know to what extent these psychological effects are merely the result of people being in better moods once their pain is gone.

. . .

Ratner also noted that the participants in the studies were not taking the medications because of physical pain, and so the psychological effects might be a difference in cases where the person experienced physical pain and then relief.

For now, Ratner is urging caution and nuanced interpretation of the data. He said stoking fears of these drugs could have negative consequences, as could a full embrace of the pills as mood-altering therapies.

Ha! Not so alarming after all, we see on a blog with 5,732 Twitter followers (as opposed to 2.4 million and 2.9 million for the most popular news pieces). I took 800 mg of ibuprofen before writing this post, and I do not feel any less anxious or disturbed about events in my life. Or even about feeling the need to write this post, with my newly “out” status and all.

There's a Neurocritic post for every occasion...

As a preface to my blog oeuvre, these are topics I care about deeply. I'm someone who has suffered heartache and emotional pain (as most of us have), as well as chronic pain conditions, four invasive surgeries, tremendous loss, depression, anxiety, insomnia, etc.... My criticism does not come lightly.

I'm not entirely on board with studies showing that one dose (or 3 weeks) of Tylenol MAY {or may not} modestly reduce social pain or “existential distress” or empathy as sufficient models of human suffering and its alleviation by OTC drugs. In fact, I have questions about all of these studies.

Suffering from the pain of social rejection? Feel better with TYLENOL® – My first question has always been, why acetaminophen and not aspirin or Advil? Was there a specific mechanism in mind?

Existential Dread of Absurd Social Psychology Studies – Does a short clip of Rabbits (by David Lynch) really produce existential angst and thoughts of death? [DISCLAIMER: I'm a David Lynch fan.]

Tylenol Doesn't Really Blunt Your Emotions – Why did ratings of neutral stimuli differ as a function of treatment (in one condition)?

Does Tylenol Exert its Analgesic Effects via the Spinal Cord? – and perhaps brainstem

Acetaminophen Probably Isn't an "Empathy Killer" – How do very slight variations in personal distress ratings translate to real world empathy?

Advil Increases Social Pain (if you're male) – Reduced hurt from Cyberball exclusion in women, but a disinhibition effect in men (blunting their tendency to suppress their emotional pain)?

...and just for fun:

Vicodin for Social Exclusion – not really – but social pain and physical pain are not interchangeable

Use of Anti-Inflammatories Associated with Threefold Increase in Homicides – cause/effect issue, of course

Scene from Rabbits by David Lynch


1 And by “people” I mean scientists and journalists alike. Read this tweetstorm from Chris Chambers, including:


Ratner KG, Kaczmarek AR, Hong Y. (2018). Can Over-the-Counter Pain Medications Influence Our Thoughts and Emotions? Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Feb 6:2372732217748965.

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Monday, February 05, 2018

Head Impact and Hyperphosphoralated Tau in Teens

We all agree that repeated blows to the head are bad for the brain. What we don't yet know is:
  • who will show lasting cognitive and behavioral impairments
  • who will show only transient sequelae (and for how long)
  • who will manifest long-term neurodegeneration
  • ...and by which specific cellular mechanism(s)

Adding to the confusion is the unclear terminology used to describe impact-related head injuries. Is a concussion the same as a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI)? Sharp and Jenkins say absolutely not, and contend that Concussion is confusing us all:
It is time to stop using the term concussion as it has no clear definition and no pathological meaning. This confusion is increasingly problematic as the management of ‘concussed’ individuals is a pressing concern. Historically, it has been used to describe patients briefly disabled following a head injury, with the assumption that this was due to a transient disorder of brain function without long-term sequelae. However, the symptoms of concussion are highly variable in duration, and can persist for many years with no reliable early predictors of outcome. Using vague terminology for post-traumatic problems leads to misconceptions and biases in the diagnostic process, producing uninterpretable science, poor clinical guidelines and confused policy. We propose that the term concussion should be avoided. Instead neurologists and other healthcare professionals should classify the severity of traumatic brain injury and then attempt to precisely diagnose the underlying cause of post-traumatic symptoms.

In an interview about the impressive mega-paper by Tagge, Fisher, Minaeva, et al. (2018), co-senior author Dr. Lee Goldstein also said no, but had a different interpretation:
When it comes to head injuries and CTE, Goldstein spoke of three categories that are being jumbled: concussions, TBI and CTE. Concussion, he says, is a syndrome defined “by consensus really every couple of years, based on the signs and symptoms of neurological syndrome, what happens after you get hit in the head. It’s nothing more than that, a syndrome...

A TBI is different. “it is an injury, an event,” he said. “It’s not a syndrome. It’s an event and it involves damage to tissue. If you don’t have a concussion, you can absolutely have brain injury and the converse is true.”
. . .

“So concussion may or may not be a TBI and equally important not having a concussion may or may not be associated with a TBI. A concussion doesn’t tell you anything about a TBI. Nor does it tell you anything about CTE.”

I think I'm even more confused now... you can have concussion (the syndrome) without an injury or an event?

But I'm really here to tell you about 8 post-mortem brains from teenage males who had engaged in contact sports. These were from Dr. Ann McKee's brain bank at BU, and were included in the paper along with extensive data from a mouse model (Tagge, Fisher, Minaeva, et al., 2018). Four brains were in the acute-subacute phase after mild closed-head impact injury and had previous diagnoses of concusion. The other 4 brains were control cases, including individuals who also had previous diagnoses of concussion. Let me repeat that. The controls had ALSO suffered head impact injuries at unknown (“not recent”) pre-mortem dates (>7 years prior in one case).

This amazing and important work was made possible by magnanimous donations from grieving parents. I am very sorry for the losses they have suffered.

Below is a summary of the cases.

Case 1
  • 18 year old multisport athlete American football (9 yrs), baseball, basketball, weight-lifting
  • history of 10 sports concussions
  • died by suicide (hanging) 4.2 months after a snowboarding accident with head injury
  • evidence of hyperphosphorylated tau protein 

    Fig. 1 (Tagge, Fisher, Minaeva, et al., 2018). Case 1. (C) and (D) Hemosiderin-laden macrophages indicated by arrows, consistent with subacute head injury. (E)  microhemorrhage surrounded by neurites immunoreactive for phosphorylated tau protein (asterisks).

    Case 2
    • 18 year old multisport athlete American football (3 yrs), rugby, soccer, hockey
    • history of 4 concussions
    • one “severe concussion” 1 month before death, followed by “a second rugby-related head injury that resulted in sideline collapse and a 2-day hospitalization”
    • died a week later after weightlifting 
    • neuropathology not shown

    Case 3
    • 17 year old multisport athlete American football, lacrosse
    • history of 2 concussions, the second resulting in confusion and memory loss
    • small anterior cavum septum pellucidum (associated with CTE in other studies)
    • died by suicide (hanging) 2 days after second concussion

    Fig. 1 (Tagge, Fisher, Minaeva, et al., 2018). Case 3. (F)-(H) amyloid precursor protein (APP)-immunostaining in the corpus callosum (arrows).

    Case 4
    • 17 year old American football player
    • history of 3 concussions (26 days, 2 days, 1 day before death)
    • final head injury was fatal, due to swelling and brain herniation
    • evidence of hyperphosphorylated tau protein
    • diagnosed with early-stage CTE

    Fig. 1 (Tagge, Fisher, Minaeva, et al., 2018). Case 4. (O) Phosphorylated tau protein-containing neurofibrillary tangles, pretangles, and neurites in the sulcal depths of the cerebral cortex consistent with neuropathological diagnosis of early-stage CTE.

    CONTROLS none showed evidence of microvascular or axonal injury, astrocytosis, microgliosis, or phosphorylated tauopathy indicative of CTE or other neurodegenerative disease

    Case 5
    • 19 year old American football player 
    • history of concussion not reported (but can assume possible “blows to the head”)
    • died from multiple organ failure and cardiac arrest

    Case 6
    • 19 year old hockey player 
    • history of 6 concussions (time pre-mortem unknown)
    • died from cardiac arrhythmia

    Case 7
    • 17 year old American football player
    • history of concussion not reported (but can assume “blows to the head”)
    •  0.3-cm cavum septum pellucidum (consistent with impact injury)
    • died from oxycodone overdose (a factor neglected in previous studies)

    Case 8
    • 22 year old former American football player
    • history of 3 concussions (one with loss of consciousness) at least 7 years before death
    • history of bipolar disorder and 2 prior suicide attempts
    • died by suicide of unknown mechanism (also neglected in previous studies, but we don't know if asphyxiation was involved)

    Fig. 1 (Tagge, Fisher, Minaeva, et al., 2018). Case 8. (K) Minimal GFAP-immunoreactive astrocytosis in white matter. (N) Few activated microglia in brainstem white matter [NOTE: not an acute-subacute case].

    The goal of this study was to look at pathology after acute-subacute head injury (e.g., astrocytosis, macrophages, and activated microglia). Only 2 of the cases showed hyperphosphorylated tau protein, which is characteristic of CTE. But in the media (e.g., It's not concussions that cause CTE. It's repeated hits), all of these changes have been conflated with CTE, a neurodegenerative condition that presumably develops over a longer time scale. Overall, the argument for a neat and tidy causal cascade is inconclusive in humans (in my view), because hyperphosphoralated tau was not observed in any of the controls, including those with significant histories of concussion. Or in Cases 2 and 3. Are we to assume, then, that concussions do not produce tauopathy in all cases? Is there a specific “dose” of head impact required? The mouse model is more precise in this realm, and those results seemed to drive the credulous headlines.

    Importantly, the authors admit that “Clearly, not every individual who sustains a head injury, even if repeated, will develop CTE brain pathology.” Conversely, CTE pathology can occur without having suffered a single blow to the head (Gao et al., 2017).

    Clearly, there's still a lot to learn.


    Gao AF, Ramsay D, Twose R, Rogaeva E, Tator C, Hazrati LN. (2017). Chronic traumatic encephalopathy-like neuropathological findings without a history of trauma. Int J Pathol Clin Res. 3:050.

    Sharp DJ, Jenkins PO. (2015). Concussion is confusing us all. Practical neurology 15(3):172-86.

    Tagge CA, Fisher AM, Minaeva OV, Gaudreau-Balderrama A, Moncaster JA, Zhang XL, Wojnarowicz MW, Casey N, Lu H, Kokiko-Cochran ON, Saman S, Ericsson M, Onos KD, Veksler R, Senatorov VV Jr, Kondo A, Zhou XZ, Miry O, Vose LR, Gopaul KR, Upreti C, Nowinski CJ, Cantu RC, Alvarez VE, Hildebrandt AM, Franz ES, Konrad J, Hamilton JA, Hua N, Tripodis Y, Anderson AT, Howell GR, Kaufer D, Hall GF, Lu KP, Ransohoff RM, Cleveland RO, Kowall NW, Stein TD, Lamb BT, Huber BR, Moss WC, Friedman A, Stanton PK, McKee AC, Goldstein LE. (2018). Concussion, microvascular injury,and early tauopathy in young athletes after impact head injury and an impact concussion mouse model. Brain 141: 422-458.

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