New Study Says Common Painkillers Could Make People Riskier

Surprising effects on the brain found in widely used over-the-counter drugs

Robert Roy Britt
Elemental
Published in
4 min readSep 22, 2020

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Photo: AsiaVision/Getty Images

Acetaminophen, the pain-killing ingredient in Tylenol, alters a person’s perception of risk, potentially leading to behaviors they would otherwise not consider, preliminary new research suggests. The drug can also lower physical pain caused by emotional distress such as hurt feelings and even lessen our empathy for other people, other research finds.

Ibuprofen, the active ingredient in the painkiller Advil, has also been found to alter emotions, raising overall questions about the broad psychological effects — poorly understood, as of now — of over-the-counter medications consumed by tens of millions of Americans daily, often in higher-than-recommended doses.

People taking acetaminophen in the new study, published in the journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, had fewer qualms about things like bungee jumping or speaking up about an unpopular issue at work. They also took greater risks in games played for prizes.

“Acetaminophen seems to make people feel less negative emotion when they consider risky activities — they just don’t feel as scared.”

The research involved multiple experiments. In one, college students who took 1,000 mg of acetaminophen — the common dose for a headache — ranked activities like bungee jumping, skydiving, and starting a new career as less risky than the rankings made by students who were given a placebo pill. In another experiment, students clicked a computer button to inflate a balloon on screen, earning virtual money with each click but knowing they’d lose it all if it popped. At any time, they could bank their winnings and move on to the next balloon. Those who’d taken acetaminophen pumped more times and burst more balloons than those in the control group who’d taken a placebo.

“Acetaminophen seems to make people feel less negative emotion when they consider risky activities — they just don’t feel as scared,” said Baldwin Way, PhD, co-author of the new study and an associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

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Robert Roy Britt
Elemental

Editor of Aha! and Wise & Well on Medium + the Writer's Guide at writersguide.substack.com. Author of Make Sleep Your Superpower: amazon.com/dp/B0BJBYFQCB