Scientists examined whether empathy can push a person in recovery to relapse for a new study. 

Having empathy — being able to relate to other people’s emotions — is generally considered a positive trait, but new research suggests that empathy could lead to relapse for people who are in recovery. 

Dr. Jonathan Gewirtz, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, led a team of researchers who found that mice who witnessed another mouse in a scary situation were more likely to seek out drugs afterwards. The findings were presented during the 57th Annual Meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, being held this week in Florida. 

Gewirtz says his lab studies the biology of fearful memories and drug dependence, “since negative affective states are a prominent feature of drug withdrawal and likely play a critical role in the persistence of drug addiction.”

To set up the empathy experiment, mice were placed in a two-sided container, where they got a dose of saline solution on one side, or morphine on the other, according to EurekaAlert and a press release by the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology.

Over several days, the mice associated a specific side with the drug. Then, two weeks later the mice received only saline on either side. This was meant to mimic a period of sobriety after addiction. 

Next, the mice were exposed to seeing another mouse in a frightening situation. Following that, they were put back in the two-sided compartment. 

“Consistently, the sober mice preferentially selected the compartment that was associated with morphine, demonstrating drug-seeking behavior in response to witnessing a traumatic event,” according to the press release. 

During the experiment, the researchers measured the mice’s fear response. 

To strengthen the connection between empathy and drug-seeking behavior, scientists then treated some of the mice with oxytocin, a chemical that is associated with social bonding and thus empathy. They found that these mice had a greater fear response than mice that were not treated with oxytocin. 

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“[Researchers] conclude that mice, and potentially people, that witness a stressful event are negatively emotionally affected, which may lead them to seek drugs, even after a period of sobriety,” according to the press release. “Oxytocin treatment exacerbates this response, indicating that social bonding (and empathy, by extension) is a driving force in this behavior. The researchers say these findings are the first to demonstrate the direct link between empathy and drug relapse, as well as to suggest oxytocin may play a role in enhancing this response.”

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