Tylenol can kill you; new warning admits popular painkiller causes liver damage, death

It has been a common household name in over-the-counter pain relief for more than 50 years. But the popular painkiller drug Tylenol is getting a major labeling makeover following a string of personal injury lawsuits. According to the Associated Press (AP), so many Tylenol users these days are suffering major liver damage or dying that the drug’s manufacturer, McNeil Consumer Healthcare, has decided to put a large, red warning label on the cap that informs users about the drug’s risks.

Even when taken at recommended doses, acetaminophen, the primary active ingredient in Tylenol, can cause major damage to the liver, potentially leading to liver failure and even death. In fact, acetaminophen is currently the leading cause of sudden liver failure in the U.S., as its toxic metabolites have been shown to kill liver cells. The drug is so toxic that as many as 80,000 people are rushed to the emergency room annually due to acetaminophen poisoning, and another 500-or-so end up dead from liver failure.


These are disturbing figures that might come as a surprise to most people, especially considering that millions of Americans pop Tylenol and acetaminophen-containing drugs on a regular basis. But with more than 85 personal injury lawsuits and counting filed against the company in federal court, McNeil is feeling the heat from a drug that has long been claimed as one of the safest painkiller drugs on the market, which it clearly is not.

“The warning will make it explicitly clear that the over-the-counter drug contains acetaminophen, a pain-relieving ingredient that’s the nation’s leading cause of sudden liver failure,” writes Matthew Perrone for the AP. “The new cap is designed to grab the attention of people who don’t read warnings that already appear in the fine print on the product’s label, according to company executives.”

The new label, which will bear the phrases “CONTAINS ACETAMINOPHEN” and “ALWAYS READ THE LABEL,” is set to first appear on all bottles of Extra Strength Tylenol, which contains more than 50 percent more acetaminophen per dose than regular strength Tylenol. And in the coming months, all bottles of Tylenol, including regular strength Tylenol, will bear the new label.

NyQuil, Sudafed, Excedrin and many other common drugs also contain acetaminophen

Despite the new label, McNeil, which is owned by drug giant Johnson & Johnson (J&J), insists that Tylenol is safe when taken as directed. But what the company fails to admit is that many people are taking not only Tylenol but also other drugs that contain acetaminophen, which increases their dose of the chemical to levels that are much higher than they probably realize.

According to the AP, nearly one in four Americans, or about 78 million people, consume drug products that contain acetaminophen in a given week. Some 600 over-the-counter drug products, it turns out, contain acetaminophen. These products include other painkiller drugs like Excedrin, for instance, as well as NyQuil cold formula and Sudafed sinus pills.

Combining these and other acetaminophen-containing drugs is a major cause of acetaminophen overdose, say experts, hence the addition of the new labels. But some people who stay well within the maximum daily dose of acetaminophen, which is currently set at 4,000 milligrams (mg) per day, still fall ill or die, which suggests that perhaps any level of acetaminophen is toxic and should be avoided.

“It’s still a little bit of a puzzle,” says Dr. Anne Larson from the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, Washington. “Is it a genetic predisposition? Are they claiming they took the right amount, but they really took more? It’s difficult to know.”

Robots to change face of farming

The world’s first robot designed to spray crops in swarms, and ultimately help fill the labor shortage in villages, has been launched in Australia’s Queensland.

The inventors say these weed-killing robots won’t replace farmers, but will make their jobs easier. They can communicate with each other to make sure not a single weed is missed.

These prototype robots are fitted with weed sprayers, but it’s hoped that with further development, new equipment will be installed on board to suit the farmers’ individual needs. The new prototypes have already sparked interest all over the world.

The company behind this says they came up with the idea for the robots because traditional machinery was getting bigger and bigger and too difficult to operate. According to the firm, the technology has already brought numerous engineers and scientists into Australia.

Can Handwriting Make You Smarter?

Laptops and organizer apps make pen and paper seem antique, but handwriting appears to focus classroom attention and boost learning in a way that typing notes on a keyboard does not, new studies suggest.

Students who took handwritten notes generally outperformed students who typed their notes via computer, researchers at Princeton University and the University of California at Los Angeles found. Compared with those who type their notes, people who write them out in longhand appear to learn better, retain information longer, and more readily grasp new ideas, according to experiments by other researchers who also compared note-taking techniques.

“The written notes capture my thinking better than typing,” said educational psychologist Kenneth Kiewra at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, who studies differences in how we take notes and organize information.

Ever since ancient scribes first took reed pen to papyrus, taking notes has been a catalyst for the alchemy of learning, by turning what we hear and see into a reliable record for later study and recollection. Indeed, something about writing things down excites the brain, brain imaging studies show. “Note-taking is a pretty dynamic process,” said cognitive psychologist Michael Friedman at Harvard University who studies note-taking systems. “You are transforming what you hear in your mind.”

Researchers have been studying note-taking strategies for almost a century. Not until recently, though, did they focus on differences caused by the tools we use to capture information. Note-taking with a lead pencil, first mass-produced in the 17th Century, just isn’t so different than using a fountain pen, patented in 1827; a ballpoint pen, patented in 1888; or a felt-tipped marker, patented in 1910.

Today, however, virtually all college students have portable computers; lectures are the main vehicle for instruction; and the keyboard clatter of note-taking is the soundtrack of higher education.

Generally, people who take class notes on a laptop do take more notes and can more easily keep up with the pace of a lecture than people scribbling with a pen or pencil, researchers have found. College students typically type lecture notes at a rate of about 33 words a minute. People trying to write it down manage about 22 words a minute.

In the short run, it pays off. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis in 2012 found that laptop note-takers tested immediately after a class could recall more of a lecture and performed slightly better than their pen-pushing classmates when tested on facts presented in class. They reported their experiments with 80 students in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Any advantage, though, is temporary. After just 24 hours, the computer note takers typically forgot material they’ve transcribed, several studies said. Nor were their copious notes much help in refreshing their memory because they were so superficial.

In contrast, those who took notes by hand could remember the lecture material longer and had a better grip on concepts presented in class, even a week later. The process of taking them down encoded the information more deeply in memory, experts said. Longhand notes also were better for review because they’re more organized.

In three experiments during 2014, psychologists Pam A. Mueller at Princeton and Daniel Oppenheimer at UCLA arranged for students to listen to talks on a variety of topics including algorithms and bats, while taking notes either via keyboard or pen and paper. The 67 students were tested immediately afterward and then again a week later, after being given an opportunity to review their notes.

Those who wrote out their notes longhand took down fewer words, but appeared to think more intensely about the material as they wrote, and digested what they heard more thoroughly, the researchers reported in Psychological Science. “All of that effort helps you learn,” said Dr. Oppenheimer.

Laptop users instead took notes by rote, taking down what they heard almost word for word.

When tested, “the longhand note takers did significantly better than laptop note-takers despite the fact that laptop note takers had more notes to look at, “ Dr. Mueller said. “Having all these notes did not help refresh their recollection.”

The problem is a typist’s tendency to take verbatim notes. “Ironically, the very feature that makes laptop note-taking so appealing—the ability to take notes more quickly—was what undermined learning,” said Dr. Kiewra.

In one experiment, Dr. Mueller explicitly warned students using laptops to avoid taking verbatim notes, saying it would hurt their performance later. They couldn’t help themselves. “The tendency of people to take verbatim notes on a laptop is really hard to break,” she said. “It seemed really ingrained to type and type and type, even when you are told that it is not beneficial to your performance.”

These note-taking studies were conducted under laboratory conditions, but their findings likely apply equally wherever we try to collect our thoughts in writing, whether in a classroom, a business meeting or a doctor’s office, the experts said.

College lecture halls commonly are filled with students typing. At Princeton, about two-thirds of the students take class notes with laptops, while at UCLA less than half do. At the University of North Carolina, about 41% of students in a recent survey said they use laptops to take class notes.

“At Princeton, it was a sea of MacBooks,” said Dr. Mueller. “Few students were taking longhand notes.”

Any notes are better than none, studies show. While handwritten notes may be more memorable, there is room for improvement.

At the University of Nebraska, Dr. Kiewra conducted 16 experiments to gauge the completeness of handwritten notes and found that people usually took down only a third or so of the information presented. Moreover, in their haste to keep up with the spoken word, people omitted important qualifiers, failed to record context, and skipped key details.

Because it requires such concentration, the process of taking notes itself can be distracting. Dr. Kiewra recalled that when he was still a student, one of his professors banned note-taking in class because he wanted students to pay full attention to the lesson. The teacher instead supplied prepared notes for the entire class.

Nonetheless, Dr. Kiewra recalled that he continued taking his own notes, cradling his head in his arms to shield his notebook as he wrote. One day, however, the professor caught him in the act.

“Mr. Kiewra, are you taking notes in my classroom?” he demanded. The flustered student dissembled. “I’m only writing a letter to a friend back home.”

“Oh thank goodness,” the professor said. “I thought you were taking notes.”

Catching Feelings: Traffic In Amygdala Neural Circuit Determines If We Process Emotions As Good Or Bad

The brain, our most complex organ, is an ever-active communication hub where cells continuously speak with other cells. Naturally, connections between neurons in the brain are key to the ability to process our many thoughts and emotions. In fact, scientists believe the origin of many if not all brain disorders, including depression, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder, may be a misrouting of information.


A new study explores the way two separate populations of collaborating cells within the amygdala, the emotion zone of our brain, contribute to our ability to assign feeling to particular events.

Though they intermingle, two groups of neurons in the amygdala will form parallel lanes to carry information about an experience to other cells; as the researchers explain, this traffic is what decides whether our emotional response to an experience is positive or negative. Led by Dr. Kay Tye, of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, the team believes the reason these different neuron populations reside together within the amygdala is to allow for quick interactions among cells reacting to different inputs. Such speed is necessary, they hypothesize, when coordinating a response to urgent situations.

The current study is based on previous research performed by Tye’s lab, where she and her colleagues first identified the two populations, or groups of functionally similar neurons in the amygdala. At that time, they learned how these separate groups of cells helped process both positive and negative emotions. One of these populations relays information to the nucleus accumbens, which plays a role in learning to seek rewarding experiences, while the other sends input to the centromedial amygdala, which scientists believe may turn our attention to important stimuli and influence how we react to situations.

Intrigued by this discovery, the researchers wanted to know more. They asked themselves, what exactly do these neurons do when an animal reacts to a frightening stimulus — or, for that matter, a pleasurable one? And so they designed the current experiment.

The Experiment

They began by tagging, in three groups of mice, each population of neurons. This is necessary because, unlike some areas of the brain, no topographical features separate the populations or limit how they move so they are intermingled and otherwise indistinguishable. Using a light-sensitive protein as a tag, the researchers labeled the cells communicating with the nucleus accumbens, the cells projecting to the centromedial amygdala, and a third group of cells connecting to the ventral hippocampus, which is involved in anxiety. Next, the researchers trained the mice to discriminate between two different Pavlovian sounds, one linked to sweet reward (sugar water) and the other to bitterness (quinine). Finally, they recorded electrical activity from each group of neurons as the mice encountered the two stimuli.

Analyzing the collected data, the scientists compared the brain’s anatomy (which neurons are connected) and its physiology (how neurons respond to input) and discovered a surprise.

The neurons within each labeled subpopulation did not all react the same way to each stimulus. Some responded to one stimulus, some to the other, and some responded to both. Some neurons became excited and others inhibited.

Despite these many differences, the researchers discovered overall patterns of behavior for each population. The neurons projecting to the ventral hippocampus appeared balanced, responding equally to both positive and negative cues. Among neurons projecting to the nucleus accumbens, the reward stimulus excited most, while bitterness drew no reaction. Finally, the opposite happened among neurons connecting to the central amygdala — the bitter cue excited most of these neurons, which remained unresponsive to the sweet reward.

These results suggest our brains process emotions at the level of small populations of cells or possibly even individual neurons. As Tye and her colleagues discovered, we have only scratched the surface and do not yet fully appreciate the complexities of our brains.

Top 10 Mysteries of the Mind

Much of what we don’t understand about being human is simply in our heads. The brain is a befuddling organ, as are the very questions of life and death, consciousness, sleep, and much more. Here’s a heads-up on what’s known and what’s not understood about your noggin.


Study Finds Risks for Teens of Mothers Who Took Certain Antidepressants

Adolescents whose mothers took certain antidepressants while pregnant with them are more than four times as likely to become depressed by age 15, compared with children whose mothers had psychiatric disorders but didn’t take the medication during pregnancy, according to a large new study.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, also found no link between the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (like Prozac and Zoloft) during pregnancy and the development of autism, ADHD or anxiety in children.

The new data examining nearly 65,000 women could make the decision on whether to continue medication during pregnancy even more fraught for women with depression and anxiety disorders. The study is one of very few to follow children for such a long time. Most earlier research ended when children were about 6 years old or younger. And it is the first study to link SSRI exposure in utero to a later risk of depression.

The results “are a bit worrisome,” says Heli Malm, an obstetrician at Helsinki University Hospital and lead author of the study. She notes that the oldest children in the study are just entering the ages when mood disorders tend to arise, so the numbers with depression could increase. But she cautions that the results are preliminary.

Depression and anxiety disorders are common in pregnant women. About 10% of women in the U.S. receive prescriptions for SSRIs during pregnancy.

Indeed, the research looking at the longer-term effects of SSRIs on children exposed in utero is decidedly mixed. Some studies have found an increased risk of autism and ADHD. Others have found no association. Some studies have reported a higher rate of language and behavioral problems and motor issues in children whose mothers took SSRIs while pregnant. Others haven’t found a link.

The risk for both depression and anxiety disorders is partly genetic, meaning some children might be predisposed to depression or anxiety regardless of the medication their mothers took while pregnant with them.

Research has found that many of these same problems are also related to mothers’ psychiatric illnesses while pregnant. Some studies have shown that depression during pregnancy increases the risk of autism and high anxiety during pregnancy has been linked to ADHD symptoms in children. So it can be tough to tease apart the effects of the disease and the effects of the medication. Depression during pregnancy is also linked to problems, such as preterm birth and lower birth weight in babies.

“The issue with depression [in children] is definitely of interest and deserves concern,” says Marlene P. Freeman, associate director of the Perinatal and Reproductive Psychiatry Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She wasn’t involved in the new study.

Dr. Freeman notes that the study didn’t include information on whether mothers who took SRRIs were also depressed during their offspring’s childhood. Women who took SSRIs during pregnancy might have had more chronic depression. “One of the biggest drivers of childhood depression is maternal depression. There was a lot of potential time for these kids to be exposed to their mothers’ depression,” she says.

The study used data from a national registry in Finland. Almost 16,000 women and their children were in the SSRI group. Another 10,000 were in a second group of women who had a psychiatric disorder during pregnancy but took no SSRIs. A third group of almost 8,000 women had recently taken SSRIS but stopped before pregnancy. A control group of over 31,000 women experienced no psychiatric disorders and used no SSRIs during pregnancy.

Among the children exposed to SSRIs in utero, 8.2% had depression by the time they were nearly 15. Only 1.9% of those whose mothers had a psychiatric disorder during pregnancy but didn’t take SSRIs went on to develop depression.

The study attempted to control for the severity of the mothers’ psychiatric illnesses by accounting for prior suicidal behavior and excluding women who were taking multiple medications for psychiatric disorders. Children’s depression diagnoses were retrieved from data from inpatient care in all hospitals and outpatient services from public hospitals in Finland.

The impetus for the study was work that researchers at Columbia University had done on rodents. Mice who were given Prozac during the first week or two of life exhibited anxious and depressed behavior when they became adults. (The first few weeks of the life of a mouse are roughly equivalent to the second and third trimesters in utero for human babies.)

For example, normal mice run away when mild shocks are delivered to their feet. But the Prozac-exposed mice moved very slowly or didn’t escape at all when shocked. The mice “look perfectly normal until they reach the mouse equivalent of adolescence,” says Jay A. Gingrich, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University Medical Center, who led the rodent research and is a co-author of the new SSRI study.

The early-life exposure led to slowed firing of neurons that respond to serotonin in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain involved in memory and emotion regulation that develops rapidly in adolescence.

Most distressing to Dr. Gingrich was that administering antidepressants to the adult mice didn’t reverse the anxious or depressed behavior. “That is what keeps me awake at night,” he says.

SSRIs block the reabsorption of serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain, back into the nerve cells. The result is that more serotonin remains in the synapses. That action is thought to boost mood in depressed adults. In animals exposed to SSRIs during this sensitive early period, the serotonin system is blunted later on. In mice, higher doses and exposure during the equivalent of the second and third trimester lead to the most severe behavioral effects.

Dr. Gingrich is exploring whether other antidepressants that don’t work on serotonin may not lead to the same problems.

SSRI exposure—particularly to Prozac and Paxil—has been associated with a small increased risk of heart defects and a serious lung disorder in newborns, pulmonary hypertension. Also, up to 30% of babies will develop something called neonatal abstinence or adaption syndrome. Newborns may tremble, have trouble sleeping and eating and also may have a distinctive, high-pitched cry. But this usually resolves within a couple of days.

Depression and anxiety disorders are common in pregnant women. About 10% of pregnant women in the U.S. receive prescriptions for SSRIs. Studies have shown that about two-thirds of women with a history of major depression who stop their medications while pregnant will relapse.

“If you need to take medication, it is important to take medication so the unborn doesn’t suffer the effects of untreated depression,” says Nada Stotland, a professor of psychiatry at Rush Medical College in Chicago and a past president of the American Psychiatric Association. She wasn’t involved in the new study. “The danger of a study like this is to make people feel more conflicted or guilty because they were depressed. It is just as if they had asthma, or a cardiac condition and they needed to take medication.”

Doctors say more women need to have access to psychological treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy, for depression and anxiety disorders. These can often be as effective as medication. And they come with none of the worst potential side effects of SSRIs.

Steroid use can turn ‘good’ fat into ‘bad’: Study

colorful pills detailsThese steroids are usually given to treat inflammatory diseases, so it’s important to be careful. 

Steroids that are generally given to treat inflammatory diseases can slow down calorie burning in brown or “good” fat, finds a study.

The findings showed that brown fat is an important player in causing obesity by steroids, which are prone to side effects like weight gain and obesity. Brown fat, also known as the good fat, is found in both humans and animals. It burns energy by acting like a heat generator to keep the body warm, contributing greatly to total daily energy expenditure in regulating body weight.

Compared with placebo treatment, prednisolone — a steroid used in the treatment of various inflammatory and autoimmune conditions — was found to reduce the production of heat in brown fat and increase the production of energy derived from a meal.

The research indicated that prednisolone could be enhancing conversion of energy from a meal into stored “bad” fat, while not allowing brown fat to do its work of turning energy into heat. “Our findings pave the way for developing treatments that stimulate the function and growth of brown fat to prevent not only steroid-induced obesity, but also maybe obesity in general,” said one of the researchers Ken Ho, professor at the University of Queensland in Australia. The team analysed 13 healthy young adults — six men and seven women — with an average age of 28 years. The researchers allocated the participants, in random order, to one week of treatment with prednisolone (15mg per day) and one week of placebo, a dummy drug, separated by a two-week treatment-free period. At the end of each treatment, participants moved to an air-conditioned room cooled to 19 degrees Celsius. There they underwent nuclear medicine scanning with positron emission tomography-computed tomography (PET-CT) of their head and chest as well as measurement of the skin temperature at the base of the neck, where brown fat is located, using a sensitive infrared thermal camera. – See more at: http://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/health/steroid-use-can-turn-good-fat-into-bad-study/#sthash.PIqvBt3v.dpuf


The Best Way to Quit Smoking, According to Science

Quitting cold turkey was 25% more effective than gradually cutting down on cigarettes

Three Cigarettes
Researchers have long sought for answers on the best way to help people quit smoking. Often, it comes down to two options: quitting cold turkey or gradually tapering a smoking habit. But which one works better?

“A lot of people think that the common sense way to give up smoking is to reduce the amount they smoke before quitting,” says Nicola Lindson-Hawley of the University of Oxford, who led a new study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

But the results suggested just the opposite: quitting cold turkey is best.

Lindson-Hawley and her colleagues looked at almost 700 people in England who smoked at least 15 cigarettes a day but who were planning to quit. They all set a quit date for two weeks. Half of them were randomly assigned to smoke normally until their quit date, then to stop abruptly. The other half gradually reduced their smoking over the two weeks leading up to the appointed day. Both groups had behavioral counseling, nicotine patches and nicotine replacement therapy from products like gum, lozenges and mouth spray.

The way the researchers measured success was by looking at smoking abstinence for four weeks after the quit date, and then six months later.

Those who quit abruptly stuck to it the best—about 25% better than the gradual-cessation group. And 49% of the abrupt group were successful, while 39% of the gradual group were.

At the half-year mark, 22% of the cold-turkey group were still smoke-free, while 15% of the gradual group were.

Interestingly, more people said they preferred to quit gradually rather than abruptly. But a person’s preferences didn’t make much of a difference in their success. “Even if people wanted to quit gradually, they were more likely to quit if they used the abrupt method,” Lindson-Hawley says.

The research didn’t look at other potential forms of smoking cessation, including e-cigarettes, which have yet to be definitively proven as an effective smoking cessation tool. And even though quitting cold was better, Lindson-Hawley says, “the quit rates we found in the gradual group were still quite good.” In future research, she plans to explore the methods of gradual quitting to see if they can be made more effective. “If there are people who really feel they can’t quit abruptly, and they want to quit gradually—otherwise they won’t try to quit at all—we still need to support them to do that.”

Sugar named ‘most addictive and dangerous substance’ of our time, worse than cigarettes and alcohol.

While the rest of the world is busy obsessing over the dangers of cigarettes and alcohol, the head of Amsterdam’s health service in the Netherlands is trying to raise awareness about a much bigger and more pervasive health threat: sugar. According to Paul Van der Velpen, sugar is the most dangerous and addictive substance of modern times, and more needs to be done in the interests of public health to make people aware of the many harms caused by this ubiquitous drug.

In a recent letter posted by GGD Nederland, an association of the country’s community health services, Van der Velpen discusses the issue of obesity, rates of which have risen dramatically in the Netherlands in recent years. Pointing out that obesity, which is linked to metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease and a host of other chronic ailments, saps the healthcare system of tens of millions of dollars annually, Van der Velpen emphasizes that exercise is simply not enough to reverse this growing trend.

Bravely defying processed food industry claims, which insist that sugar consumed “in moderation” is just fine, Van der Velpen delves into the actual science behind how the body responds to sugar as opposed to protein and fat. In his letter, Van der Velpen explains that sugar intensifies food cravings, for instance, and causes people to eat far more than they otherwise would without it. Additionally, he points out that sugar also disrupts normal food metabolism, eventually leading to addiction.

“Just like alcohol and tobacco, sugar is actually a drug,” writes Van der Velpen, in an English translation from the original Dutch. “This may seem exaggerated and far-fetched, but sugar is the most dangerous drug of the times and can still be easily acquired everywhere … The use of sugar should be discouraged. And users should be made aware of the dangers.”

Europeans consume far less sugar than Americans, and yet health officials there recognize a growing health epidemic

If you have ever visited Europe, then you may recall that most of the foods produced and sold there are generally far less sweet than foods produced and sold in the U.S. And yet, despite this difference, Van der Velpen still sees a major public health epidemic brewing in his country as a result of sugar consumption — how much worse must the situation be here in the U.S., where public health officials generally avoid tagging sugar as a major factor in declining public health?

“Sugar is actually a form of addiction,” adds Van der Velpen. “It’s just as hard to get rid of the urge for sweet foods as of smoking. Thereby diets only work temporarily. Addiction therapy is better … Health insurers should have to finance addiction therapy for their obese clients.”

It is important to note that Amsterdam has long tolerated the presence and use of other typically restricted substances such as cannabis, a plant that government authorities the world over have long referred to as a “drug,” within its borders. Cannabis, of course, does not harm the body and is not a public health threat, thus Amsterdam’s relaxed approach to its availability within the city. Sugar, on the other hand, is an actual threat, and Van der Velpen hopes others will learn this truth and take action.

Learn more: http://www.naturalnews.com/042209_sugar_addictive_substances_cigarettes.html#ixzz454kW8X29

Neuroscientists Confirm That Our Loved Ones Become Ourselves


Self-identity is entwined with the people you empathize with at a neural level.

A new study has confirmed that humankind’s capacity for love and friendship sets us apart from all other species. Researchers at University of Virginia have found that humans are hardwired to empathize with those close to them at a neural level.

Interestingly, the ability to put yourselves in another person’s shoes depends drastically on whether the person is a stranger or someone you know. The study titled “Familiarity Promotes the Blurring of Self and Other in the Neural Representation of Threat” appears in the August issue of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

According to researchers, the human brain puts strangers in one bin and the people we know in another compartment. People in your social network literally become entwined with your sense of self at a neural level. “With familiarity, other people become part of ourselves,” said James Coan, a psychology professor in University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences who used functional magnetic resonance imaging brain (fMRI) scans to find that people closely correlate people to whom they are attached to themselves.

Humans have evolved to have our self-identity become woven into a neural tapestry with our loved ones. James Coan said, “Our self comes to include the people we feel close to. This likely is because humans need to have friends and allies who they can side with and see as being the same as themselves. And as people spend more time together, they become more similar.”

To test this hypothesis, Coan and his colleagues conducted a study with 22 young adult participants who underwent fMRI scans of their brains during experiments to monitor brain activity while under threat of receiving mild electrical shocks to themselves versus a shock to a friend or a stranger.

The researchers found that regions of the brain responsible for threat response – the anterior insula, putamen and supramarginal gyrus – became active under threat of shock to the self and to the threat to a friend. However, when the threat of shock was to a stranger, these brain areas showed minimal activity. When the threat of shock was to a friend, the brain activity of the participant was basically identical to the activity displayed under threat to the self.

“The correlation between self and friend was remarkably similar,” Coan said. “The finding shows the brain’s remarkable capacity to model self to others; that people close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real. Literally we are under threat when a friend is under threat. But not so when a stranger is under threat.”

“It’s essentially a breakdown of self and other; our self comes to include the people we become close to,” Coan said. “If a friend is under threat, it becomes the same as if we ourselves are under threat. We can understand the pain or difficulty they may be going through in the same way we understand our own pain.”

Why do some people hurt the ones they love?

Have you ever had someone that you consider to be a close friend, ally or loved one turn on you and become cold or cruel? Usually the outbursts of anger and blind rage are short and episodic but they give a window into the underbelly of someone’s psyche. One’s implusive response is to detach and unravel this person from your neural tapestry. This is a natural response of self-protection at a neural level but isn’t always the best response.

A solution for breaking this pattern of behavior is to take a two-pronged approach of both bolstering self-love and taking the high road of remaining empathetic towards loved ones who are hateful by recognizing that mean-spirtedness is a manifestation of self-hate. For more on this please check out my Psychology Today blog “The Guts Enough Not to Fight Back.” As a caveat, this is in no way implying that you should stay in a seriously harmful or abusive relationship.

Patterns of behavior are often learned and repeated within families and passed on through generations. A promising aspect of this new study is that it offers clues on ways to break the cycle.

By not fighting back – but instead practicing loving-kindness – you can keep loved ones in your life and over time you will remain an integral part of one another’s neural tapestry. This will fortify both people’s sense of being worthy of love and belonging and make everyone feel safe and sound over the long run. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said famously, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Conclusion: Come in From the Cold

We need friends and family more than anything else. One of the most fascinating aspects of this study is the insight that someone being non-empathetic to a loved one is a reflection of lacking self-love. The realization that self-hate is neurobiologically at the root of a loved one being cruel makes it easy to feel sorry for them and empathize, instead of perpetuating a cycle of anger and disconnection.

One of my favorite Joni Mitchell lines is from a song called “Come in From the Cold.” In the song she says, “We get hurt and we just panic. And we strike out. Out of fear.” We all know the classic three-step cycle of: 1) Hurt 2) Panic 3) Lashing out because of fear.

When someone you love is mean to you, the knee-jerk reaction to the threat is to strike back in self-defense. Unfortunately, doing so perpetuates the vicious cycle of mistrust, anger, and loneliness. When the empathetic response is unplugged at a neural level on both sides disconnection occurs. This is tragic because human connection matters more than anything in our lives. Luckily, through loving-kindness meditation and compassion training you can break this cycle. Empathy can be learned and fortified with mindfulness training.

If you hate yourself on some level – and friends and loved ones are embedded into your sense of self at a neural level – it would make sense that your empathetic response would short-circuit and falter if you were filled with self-loathing.

But how do you build self-love? That’s a big question, I know. One way to start is to focus on the importance of fortifying your sense of being worthy of love and belonging. And to make lifestyle choices everyday that break the cycle of self-loathing by taking care of yourself through regular physical activity, eating foods that nourish your body, filling your mind with ideas that educate/enlighten, and practicing mindfulness and loving-kindness.

“A threat to ourselves is a threat to our resources,” he said. “Threats can take things away from us. But when we develop friendships, people we can trust and rely on who in essence become we, then our resources are expanded, we gain. Your goal becomes my goal. It’s a part of our survivability.” Coan concludes, “People need friends, like one hand needs another to clap.”