December 2, 2022

An analgesic that changes the perception of risk


While acetaminophen helps you manage your headache, it may also make you more willing to take risks, a new study suggests.

People who took acetaminophen rated activities like “bungee jumping off a large bridge” and “speaking out about an unpopular problem at a meeting at work” as less risky than people who took acetaminophen. who took a placebo, the researchers found.

Drug use also led people to take more risks in an experiment where they could earn rewards by inflating a virtual balloon on a computer: sometimes they went too far and the balloon burst.

“Acetaminophen appears to cause people to feel less negative emotions when considering risky activities – they just aren’t as scared,” said Baldwin Way, co-author of the study and associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

“With nearly 25% of the population in the United States taking acetaminophen every week, reduced risk perception and increased risk-taking could have significant effects on society. “

The study continues a series of studies led by Way that have shown that acetaminophen – the main ingredient in the pain reliever Tylenol and nearly 600 other drugs – has psychological effects that most people ignore when ‘they take it.

Previous research by Way and his colleagues has shown that acetaminophen reduces both positive and negative emotions, including hurtful feelings, distress in the face of the suffering of others and even your own joy.

Way led the current study with Alexis Keaveney, a former Ohio State doctoral student, and Ellen Peters, a former Ohio State professor who is now at the University of Oregon. The study was published online in the journal Social, cognitive and affective neurosciences.

In one study, 189 students came to a lab and took 1000 mg of acetaminophen (the recommended dose for a headache) or a placebo that looked the same. After waiting for the medication to work, participants rated on a scale of 1 to 7 how risky they thought various activities would be.

The results showed that people under the influence of acetaminophen considered activities like bungee jumping, coming home alone at night to a dangerous part of town, starting a new career in their mid-30s, and taking a skydiving course as being less risky than those who took the placebo.

The effects of acetaminophen on risk taking were also tested in three separate experimental studies.

During these studies, 545 undergraduate students participated in a task developed in 2002 which is often used by researchers to measure risky behavior. Other researchers have shown that taking more risks on this task predicted risky behaviors outside the lab, including alcohol and drug use, driving without a seat belt, and theft.

In the task, participants click a computer button to inflate a balloon on their computer screen. Every time they inflate it, they get virtual money. They can stop at any time and add money to their “bank” and move on to the next balloon. But there is a risk.

“As you pump the balloon it gets bigger and bigger on your computer screen and you make more money with each pump,” Way said.

“But as he grows up you have this decision to make: should I keep pumping and see if I can make more money knowing that if he bursts I lose the money I had made with this balloon? “

For those who took acetaminophen, the answer was: Keep pumping. The results showed that those on the drug pumped more times than those on the placebo and had more balloons burst.

“If you’re risk-averse, you can pump a few times and then decide to cash in because you don’t want the ball to burst and lose your money,” he said.

“But for those who take acetaminophen, as the balloon gets bigger, we think they have less anxiety and less negative emotions about the size of the balloon and the possibility of it bursting.”

The findings have various implications in real life, Way said.

For example, acetaminophen is the CDC recommended treatment for early symptoms of COVID-19.

“Maybe a person with mild symptoms of COVID-19 may think it’s not as risky to leave their home and meet people if they’re taking acetaminophen,” Way said.

Even everyday activities like driving present people with constant decisions involving a perception and assessment of risks that could be altered by the use of the pain reliever.

“We really need more research into the effects of acetaminophen and other over-the-counter drugs on the choices and the risks we take,” he said.

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