Antidepressants Blunt Ability to Feel Empathy

A new study suggests that taking antidepressants impairs empathy, while the experience of depression itself does not.

Peter Simons
22
3453

Empathy is an integral part of human socialization. It’s how we show others that we understand and care about their emotional state. But what happens if the medications you’re taking diminish that ability? A new study suggests that taking antidepressants impairs empathy, while the experience of depression itself does not.

The research was led by Markus Rütgen and Claus Lamm, at the University of Vienna, Austria. It was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo

Previous researchers have suggested that depression itself results in reduced empathy toward others. However, that research is limited by a significant flaw—it has almost entirely been conducted in people taking medications. An additional problem with previous research is that it focused on self-reported empathy—which is unreliable, especially in depression studies.

In the current study, the researchers aimed to resolve these two flaws with their research design. First, they compared people with a diagnosis of depression (“acute MDD”) not taking antidepressants to people without a diagnosis of depression (“healthy controls”). They then did the same test after participants had three months of antidepressant use. Three different antidepressants were used: escitalopram, venlafaxine, and mirtazapine, which each have slightly different effects on the serotonin system.

Also, in addition to asking participants to self-report their levels of empathy, the researchers used an fMRI brain scan. They used the standard fMRI tests for functional connectivity among parts of the brain associated with empathic responses to pain. While receiving the brain scan, participants watched videos of a person experiencing pain for about six-and-a-half minutes.

The results? People with a diagnosis of depression were no different from “healthy controls” in terms of empathic response as measured by the fMRI.

The researchers write that this indicated “a ‘normal’ empathic response in patients with acute MDD before they underwent antidepressant treatment.”

However, after three months of antidepressant treatment, people had much less activation in the areas of the brain associated with empathy. There was no difference based on which antidepressant was used.

Interestingly, self-reported empathy also changed: after participants took antidepressants for three months, they reported that it was significantly less unpleasant to watch a person experiencing pain for six-and-a-half minutes. According to the researchers:

“After three months of therapy, patients showed decreased neural responses in a priori selected brain areas that are reliably activated by empathic pain (bilateral AI and aMCC), and reported reduced self-experienced unpleasant affect in response to the pain of others.”

The study, therefore, demonstrated that antidepressant medications make it easier to watch others experience pain and that this effect is detectable in the brain.

In their conclusion, the researchers suggest that a lack of empathy toward others “might be an advantageous side effect with a protective function.”

 

****

Rütgen, M., Pletti, C., Tik, M., Kraus, C., Pfabigan, D. M., Sladky, R., . . . Lamm, C. (2019). Antidepressant treatment, not depression, leads to reductions in behavioral and neural responses to pain empathy. Translational Psychiatry, 9(164). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-019-0496-4 (Link)

22 COMMENTS

    • That is what I have always suspected. SSRIs appear to create a sense of not caring what others think about your behavior. This might be seen as a good thing of someone is spending a lot of time worrying that others don’t think they are good enough. Being able to say, “Screw mom, I’m gonna do what I want to do,” might feel really good to some people. But what if someone is being prevented from doing something violent because s/he is concerned about the consequences, that they might be shamed or put in jail? In that case, removing empathy or concern for the views of others may be deadly!

  1. “In their conclusion, the researchers suggest that a lack of empathy toward others ‘might be an advantageous side effect with a protective function.’” A conclusion psychopaths might make. But that’s a disgusting conclusion, for a sane and empathetic normal person, who understands humanity needs empathy and mutual respect of one’s fellow human beings, for humanity to survive.

    “An additional problem with previous research is that it focused on self-reported empathy—which is unreliable, especially in depression studies.” Yes, of course, all “depressed” people’s self reports are based upon anosognosia, thus “unreliable.”

    “Interestingly, self-reported empathy also changed: after participants took antidepressants for three months, they reported that it was significantly less unpleasant to watch a person experiencing pain for six-and-a-half minutes.” Oh, so maybe all “depressed” patients, including those who’ve been drugged, self-reported personal experiences are NOT actually all “unreliable,” and hindered by anosognosia?

    I think some research into the conclusions of our un-checked “mental health” researchers, in regards to their possible psychopathic tendencies, conclusions, and theories, may need to be done?

  2. Although I usually stay sceptic towards this type of research and, of course, others will have to scrutinize these results before reaching a firm conclusion, I feel they are on to something very important. Chemical blunting of empathy is, of course a much sadder news than an advantage, generally speaking except for military, psychopathic and other special circumstances. Even in the case of those who worry to much about others opinions unless the excessive worrying is counterbalanced by better insight, better thinking and personal progress in terms of maturity, handling negative emotions etc. Such chemical “fine tuning” is thus hazard-full and at the very least risky as others have pointed out preciously. Not caring what others feel without discrimination is not clinical progress and may lead to social isolation, neglect of many sorts and, ultimately, to self-neglect. I am quite troubled by this line of research even if it seem’s plausible and no surprise to some of you. And for once, a clear and straightforward description of the actual effect of antidepressants, other than Big Pharma’s mysterious myth that it reestablishes normal serotonin functioning.

    • My mom has always fretted, fussed and obsessed over What Others Think of Us.

      I believe that’s why she feels the SSRI drugs help her “nerves.” Blunting her ability to care helped her for a while. Though now she is very ill with IBS and tired all the time. Can’t read more than a page at a time and passively watches TV all day.

  3. Why do antidepressants have this effect? This question can be answered by example. Imagine that there is a lion’s pride and that there are people who every day bring them 500 kilograms of bread in a big truck. And imagine that such an activity is called “Urgent hunger reduction of wild animals with valuable products”

  4. Williams is running for US Presidency.
    This video of her and Anderson Cooper, is hard to watch. Williams makes a distinction between “NORMAL HUMAN EXPERIENCE” vrs what the mainstream labels “mental illness”.
    Cooper insists people taking drugs for depression are trying to feel, not blunting.

    Marianne Williamson vs. Anderson Cooper on Depression: “There’s Value Sometimes In Feeling The Sadness
    https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2019/08/02/marianne_williamson_on_depression_there_is_value_sometimes_in_feeling_the_sadness.html

    Dr. Helen Fisher, author of “Why We Love,” describes the impacts of antidepressants on the brain systems associated with romance and attachment.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcG6J-8OwAo

    • From the first link: “Clinically depressed people aren’t depressed because the world is depressing,” Cooper told Williamson. “They have a chemical imbalance.”

      Guess that unproven (or disproven) idea is still common in the mainstream media.

      At least #ineedmymedsmarianne seems to be past trending on twitter, but the comments I saw with regard to this are so disturbing to me. And by the way, she’s apparently backtracked a bit, not necessarily condemning the “meds” (um, drugs), but I haven’t seen the source for that. I didn’t watch the whole video, so maybe it was in there.

      Personally, I didn’t even begin to heal until after being off these drugs and taking them in the meantime has probably added significantly to this difficult process.

      *sigh* Thank goodness this Mad in America site exists, so I know I’m not totally alone.

  5. At least the conversation was/is open for anyone with evidence to put the facts on the table.
    We’re singing to the choir here
    MIA is mainstream- not “anti” anything- but largely sits on the fence
    No wonder nothing changes- MIA et al should have been all over this.