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Acetaminophen and Emotional Processing : A Deep Dive into Its Neurological Impact

What is Acetaminophen and What Is It Used For?

Acetaminophen, also known as paracetamol and commonly sold under the brand name of Tylenol, is a widely used over-the-counter medication with various therapeutic applications. Its primary function is to alleviate pain and reduce fever. Here are some common uses of acetaminophen:(1,2)

  • Pain Relief: Acetaminophen is commonly used to relieve mild to moderate pain, such as headaches, toothaches, backaches, menstrual cramps, and muscle aches. Acetaminophen is a common choice for relieving headaches, including tension headaches and migraines.(3)
  • Fever Reduction: Acetaminophen is effective in reducing fever associated with various illnesses, including common colds, flu, and other infections.
  • Relief from Cold and Flu Symptoms: Acetaminophen can help alleviate symptoms like sore throat, body aches, and fever that often accompany cold and flu infections.
  • Post-Vaccination Discomfort: Acetaminophen is sometimes recommended by healthcare professionals to help manage pain and fever after receiving certain vaccinations.
  • Arthritis Pain: For individuals with osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, acetaminophen can offer relief from joint pain and inflammation.
  • Dental Pain Relief: Acetaminophen is often used after dental procedures or surgeries to manage post-operative pain.
  • Pain Relief for Children: Acetaminophen is considered safe for use in children and is often used to manage pain and fever in pediatric patients.

It is essential to follow the recommended dosage instructions and not exceed the daily maximum dose to avoid potential side effects or overdose. It is also crucial to consult a healthcare professional before using acetaminophen if you have certain medical conditions or are taking other medications to prevent any potential interactions or adverse effects.

Research on Acetaminophen and Emotional Processing

Recent research has suggested that acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, may not only alleviate physical pain but also lower emotional responses, particularly in individuals with high levels of borderline personality disorder (BPD) features.

A study conducted by researchers from The Ohio State University investigated the effects of acetaminophen on behavioral distrust in individuals with varying degrees of BPD traits. The study involved 284 undergraduate students who were assessed for BPD features using a self-reported scale.(4)

Using a double-blind procedure, the participants were randomly assigned to receive either 1,000 milligrams of acetaminophen or a placebo. Afterward, they participated in an economic trust game.

Interestingly, among participants who reported higher levels of BPD features, those who received acetaminophen demonstrated more trust in their partners compared to those who took the placebo. However, there were no discernible differences in trust between those who had low BPD features, regardless of whether they received acetaminophen or the placebo.

According to the researchers, individuals with higher BPD features typically displayed lower levels of trust in anonymous partners. Nonetheless, the study’s findings indicated that this distrust was reduced when individuals with high BPD features were given acetaminophen compared to when they received the placebo.

These findings contribute to the growing body of research indicating that acetaminophen may have a modulating effect on emotional responses. Understanding the potential impact of acetaminophen on social pain and emotional regulation could lead to further investigations and possible therapeutic applications in individuals dealing with emotional challenges associated with BPD and similar conditions.

Does Acetaminophen Also Affect Positive Emotions?

This research study adds to a growing body of scientific inquiries that are exploring the effects of acetaminophen on social and emotional experiences, revealing interesting findings regarding its impact on affective responses.

Studies conducted over the last few years have consistently suggested that acetaminophen may dampen the extremity of emotional responses in various domains. For instance, in a study conducted in 2010 by researchers from the University of Kentucky, healthy participants who took regular doses of acetaminophen for three weeks reported reduced feelings of social pain compared to those who received a placebo. Moreover, the same study found that acetaminophen appeared to diminish neural responses to social rejection in individuals excluded from a virtual ball-tossing game.(5)

Subsequent investigations by various research teams have further supported these observations. In some instances, acetaminophen has been linked to blunting both negative and positive emotions. More recently, studies have shown that acetaminophen not only reduces negative feelings when exposed to emotionally evocative images but also diminishes empathy for others’ physical and emotional pain.(6)

These collective findings suggest that acetaminophen might have broader implications beyond its primary analgesic effects. As research in this area continues to unfold, understanding the comprehensive impact of acetaminophen on emotional processing could hold promising insights for both therapeutic applications and a deeper comprehension of human emotions.

Impact of Acetaminophen on Positive Emotions

While much of the focus surrounding acetaminophen’s neurological effects has concentrated on its potential dampening of negative emotions, such as distrust or social pain, recent research has also delved into its influence on positive emotions.

A study conducted at the University of California, Santa Barbara, sought to uncover whether acetaminophen might also modulate positive affective reactions.

Participants were administered acetaminophen or a placebo and were then exposed to a series of emotionally positive stimuli, including uplifting videos and heartwarming photographs. Interestingly, those who took acetaminophen reported feeling less intense positive emotions compared to the placebo group when reacting to these stimuli. This suggests that acetaminophen’s emotional blunting effect may not be limited solely to negative emotions but could encompass a general dampening across the emotional spectrum.

Moreover, further studies have shown that acetaminophen might influence how individuals process rewarding stimuli. A research initiative at the University of Maryland discovered that individuals under the influence of acetaminophen exhibited decreased neural activation in brain regions associated with reward processing when presented with positively balenced stimuli.

The potential implications of these findings are vast. If acetaminophen indeed has a generalized emotional blunting effect, it could influence daily activities that involve both positive and negative emotional reactions, from how one processes joyous events like weddings and birthdays to how one reacts to distressing news or challenges. Such insights could pave the way for a more comprehensive understanding of how over-the-counter medications might subtly but significantly shape our emotional landscape.

What this Research Means For The Future?

Further research is essential to explore the social and emotional effects of acetaminophen, particularly in specific populations such as individuals with high levels of borderline personality disorder (BPD) features.(7,8)

As of now, this study from The Ohio State University stands as the only investigation into this area, and it is crucial for future work to verify and expand upon these findings. This includes examining the effects of acetaminophen on individuals with a formal diagnosis of BPD, going beyond those with self-reported BPD features.

Moreover, additional research is also needed to explore how acetaminophen may influence people’s emotional responses in more complex social situations, surpassing the controlled environments that were simulated in the experiment. Understanding the potential effects of acetaminophen on social and emotional aspects in such populations may have significant implications for therapeutic interventions and care strategies.

Regarding the broader impact of acetaminophen on affective responses, this study is being hailed as an exciting and intriguing area of research. It has the potential to offer fresh insights into the relationship between brain processes and emotional experiences, opening up new avenues for understanding how medications may influence human emotions and social behavior.

So while this study provides valuable insights into the effects of acetaminophen on trust and emotional responses in individuals with high BPD features, further research is still needed to validate and expand these findings across different populations and social contexts.


Investigations into the effects of acetaminophen on emotional processing reveal profound implications for this prevalent over-the-counter drug. Beyond its well-documented ability to ease physical pain, acetaminophen may also influence emotional reactions, especially among individuals with distinct emotional traits or disorders. A particularly intriguing finding highlights its role in fostering trust among those with pronounced borderline personality disorder (BPD) features.

As we continue to unearth more about acetaminophen’s multifaceted impacts, it opens doors to innovative therapeutic strategies and a richer understanding of emotional nuances across various populations. This knowledge promises to pave the way for better mental health insights and strengthened social bonds.


  1. Ameer, B. and Greenblatt, D.J., 1977. Acetaminophen. Annals of internal Medicine, 87(2), pp.202-209.
  2. Anderson, B.J., 2008. Paracetamol (Acetaminophen): mechanisms of action. Pediatric Anesthesia, 18(10), pp.915-921.
  3. Blough, E.R. and Wu, M., 2011. Acetaminophen: beyond pain and fever-relieving. Frontiers in pharmacology, 2, p.72.
  4. Roberts, I.D., Krajbich, I., Cheavens, J.S., Campo, J.V. and Way, B.M., 2018. Acetaminophen reduces distrust in individuals with borderline personality disorder features. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(1), pp.145-154.
  5. DeWall, C.N., MacDonald, G., Webster, G.D., Masten, C.L., Baumeister, R.F., Powell, C., Combs, D., Schurtz, D.R., Stillman, T.F., Tice, D.M. and Eisenberger, N.I., 2010. Acetaminophen reduces social pain: Behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological science, 21(7), pp.931-937.
  6. Mischkowski, D., Crocker, J. and Way, B.M., 2016. From painkiller to empathy killer: acetaminophen (paracetamol) reduces empathy for pain. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 11(9), pp.1345-1353.
  7. Leichsenring, F., Leibing, E., Kruse, J., New, A.S. and Leweke, F., 2011. Borderline personality disorder. The Lancet, 377(9759), pp.74-84.
  8. Lieb, K., Zanarini, M.C., Schmahl, C., Linehan, M.M. and Bohus, M., 2004. Borderline personality disorder. The Lancet, 364(9432), pp.453-461.

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Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:August 9, 2023

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