Acetaminophen May Reduce Both Pain and Emotional Response Interview with:
Geoff Durso PhD Candidate
Department of Psychology
The Ohio State University

Medical Research: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Response: Recent research has shown that acetaminophen blunts negative emotions beyond those arising from physical pain (e.g., social rejection). We hypothesized that this was the case because acetaminophen was having a broader effect on individuals’ evaluative and emotional processing, given past psychological theory (e.g., differential susceptibility, personality differences in emotionality, etc) and related neurological evidence (acetaminophen affects serotonin neurotransmission in the brain, reduces inflammatory signaling in the brain, and decreases activation in the brain areas responsible for emotion, for instance–any one or combination of these effects could be responsible for the psychological outcomes that we observe on individuals’ blunted negative and positive evaluations).

So we conducted two double-blind studies (neither participants nor experiments were aware of participants’ assignment to condition). What we found was that participants taking an acute dose of acetaminophen (compared to those taking an inert placebo control) reported diminished negative evaluations of displeasing stimuli (photographs of starving children, wartorn city blocks, disgusting toilets) as well as diminished positive evaluations of pleasing stimuli (photographs of children playing with kittens, a large pile of money, a couple in bed together). Participants taking acetaminophen also reported experiencing diminished emotional responses to the photographs overall. These findings supported our predictions that acetaminophen works to reduce pain in part because it has a broader blunting effect on individuals’ evaluations and emotional experience.

Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Response: With specific regards to acetaminophen, our findings suggest that the drug may work to relieve pain by blunting individuals’ overall evaluations and emotional responses to both negative and positive influences. More broadly, our findings suggest that past work which has focused on individuals’ vulnerability to pain and other negative emotional experiences represents only half the story. In other words, instead of thinking about how vulnerability to pain and other negatives can be “relieved” by some factor, it may in some cases be more accurate to think about how individuals’ sensitivity to emotionally relevant experiences is more or less blunted.

In terms of health care, we are neither clinicians nor medical doctors, so we cannot make any recommendations beyond what a medical professional would suggest. If acetaminophen helps with your pain, then you should continue taking it in whatever capacity that is recommended by your physician.

Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response: Finally, acetaminophen exerts a multitude of effects (as noted above) and we still do not know which of these specifically accounts for its blunting of individuals’ evaluations and emotional reactions. We are unsure whether other pain relievers such as ibuprofen and aspirin would blunt individuals’ emotions in a similar manner to acetaminophen. We are also unsure what other consequences might arise from blunted emotionality brought about by acetaminophen on other relevant personal and social outcomes. All of these observations are being actively researched by members of the lab as led by Dr. Way. In all, there are more questions than answers regarding the link between acetaminophen / other pharmacological factors and important psychological outcomes. The typical response that “more research is needed” applies very well here!


Durso G, Luttrell A, Way B. Over-the-Counter Relief From Pains and Pleasures Alike: Acetaminophen Blunts Evaluation Sensitivity to Both Negative and Positive Stimuli. Psychological Science. 2015.

[wysija_form id=”1″] Interview with: Geoff Durso PhD Candidate (2015). Acetaminophen May Reduce Both Pain and Emotional Response 

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