Monday, October 15, 2012

Social contact can relieve physical pain

Humans are social beings, just like many other intelligent mammals. Not only do we prefer social contact, we actually need it: an experiment in barbaric medieval times revealed that children that never received any social contact died prematurely. While the experiment was supposedly conducted by the order of an alleged mad Roman emperor that tried to see whether language deprivation would make the children hear the voice of angels, it does highlight an interesting primary need for the proper development of a human being. Now, in a perhaps more ethical experiment, social contact was also seen to reduce a certain type of pain.

Neurologic pain
In particular, the present study, conducted by scientists from the Ohio State University, focused on a form of pain called allodynia. This type of pain is caused by a neurological defect: normally, our nerves send signals to the brain, allowing us to become aware of a situation that requires it, and the pain makes sure it has our immediate attention. Various diseases can cause neurological disorders, ultimately leading to allodynia and thereby causing pain due to faulty neural signalling.

A mouse study revealed that social interaction affects the pain caused by allodynia. In order to mimic the human situation, the animals underwent neurological surgery, and were consequently divided in two groups. One of the groups was kept in isolation, while mice in the second group received a companion. An additional variable was added by providing stress factors. Pain was assessed by analyzing whether the mice withdrew their paw after receiving a painful sensation.
Analysis revealed that social interaction resulted a in a delayed withdrawal response, meaning the mice were able to withstand greater amounts of neurological pain. This was found to be independent of the induced stress level, which is a known factor for an altered level of pain perception. In addition, the scientists found signs of physiological changes in the mouse brains, which were likely induced by social isolation.

The research provides yet another interesting example of the social needs that human beings have, even though the research was only performed in a mouse model attempting to mimic our own situation. It is however likely that it works fairly similar in human beings. It would be interesting to find out just how much we can 'heal' by providing adequate social interaction.

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