Depression is a mental disorder that often comes along with strong impairments of social functioning.
Previously, scientists assumed that depression also impairs empathy, an essential skill for social interactions and understanding others.
But in a new study, researchers found that taking antidepressants can lead to impaired empathy regarding the perception of pain.
The research was done by a team from the University of Vienna and the Medical University of Vienna.
In the study, the team aimed to find the effects of depression and antidepressant treatment on empathy.
They tested patients with depression who did not use drugs and examined their empathic responses to the pain of others during an acute depressive episode and after three months of antidepressant treatment.
They found that before treatment, patients and healthy people responded in a comparable way.
But after three months of antidepressant treatment, the patients reported their level of empathy to be lower, and their brain activation was reduced in areas previously linked to empathy.
The researchers say that reduced empathic responses were not caused by a general dampening of negative emotions.
The lowered emotional impact of negative events in a social context possibly allows patients to recover more easily.
Nevertheless, the actual impact of reduced empathy on patients’ social behavior remains to be explored.
The lead author of the study is Markus Rütgen.
The study is published in the scientific journal Translational Psychiatry.
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