It still hurts: altered endogenous opioid activity in the brain during social rejection and acceptance in major depressive disorder

Subjects

Abstract

The μ-opioid receptor (MOR) system, well known for dampening physical pain, is also hypothesized to dampen ‘social pain.’ We used positron emission tomography scanning with the selective MOR radioligand [11C]carfentanil to test the hypothesis that MOR system activation (reflecting endogenous opioid release) in response to social rejection and acceptance is altered in medication-free patients diagnosed with current major depressive disorder (MDD, n=17) compared with healthy controls (HCs, n=18). During rejection, MDD patients showed reduced endogenous opioid release in brain regions regulating stress, mood and motivation, and slower emotional recovery compared with HCs. During acceptance, only HCs showed increased social motivation, which was positively correlated with endogenous opioid release in the nucleus accumbens, a reward structure. Altered endogenous opioid activity in MDD may hinder emotional recovery from negative social interactions and decrease pleasure derived from positive interactions. Both effects may reinforce depression, trigger relapse and contribute to poor treatment outcomes.

Introduction

Major depressive disorder (MDD) often develops in the context of negative social environments, including childhood abuse and neglect,1, 2 adolescent peer victimization3, 4 and romantic break-ups.5, 6 In particular, rejection-related stressors have been shown to be among the best predictors of MDD compared with other types of stressors.5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 One reason why rejection may be particularly depressogenic is that devaluation of the self by others, real or perceived, leads directly to low self-esteem,11, 12 a causal factor for MDD.13, 14 Once MDD develops, poor emotional regulation during rejection can continue to reinforce symptoms, contributing to the maintenance of MDD.15, 16 Furthermore in MDD, reduced pleasure from social interactions can contribute to withdrawal, reduced social support and the persistence of a depressive episode.15, 17, 18

Endogenous opioid peptides acting at μ-opioid receptors (MORs) have been shown in animal models to both alleviate distress behaviors following social separation,19, 20, 21, 22, 23 and promote social play behaviors in the presence of conspecifics.24, 25, 26, 27, 28 Our recent study in healthy human volunteers demonstrated that social rejection activated the MOR system in structures involved in mood and motivation including the amygdala, thalamus and ventral striatum.29 This pattern of MOR activation was similar to that during physical pain,29, 30 supporting the theory that emotional 'hurt' during rejection is regulated by opioid pathways for physical pain.31, 32 In addition, during social acceptance MOR activation in the ventral striatum was correlated with increased social motivation,29 supporting the theory that social rewards are regulated by opioid pathways.27, 33

The present study examined the function of the MOR system in response to social rejection and acceptance in patients with MDD, compared with a matched sample of healthy controls (HCs). Given the adaptive role of the opioid system in reducing social distress and promoting social motivation, we hypothesized that MDD patients would show deficient MOR activation during rejection and acceptance, with associated alterations in behavior and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. We tested this hypothesis using a salient, ecologically relevant task for social rejection and acceptance during positron emission tomography (PET) scanning with the selective MOR radioligand [11C]carfentanil.

Materials and Methods

Subjects

Participants were 18 HCs from a previous study29 and 17 patients with current MDD, recruited through local advertisements. HCs and MDD patients were group-matched for gender, age, education, ethnicity, sexual orientation and relationship status (Supplementary Table 1, Ps>0.05). HCs were free of psychiatric disorders as assessed using the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV for non-patients, version 2.0. Patients were diagnosed with current MDD using the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV for patients, version 2.0, were free of psychotropic medication for at least 6 months at the time of the study, and had moderate-to-severe depression (mean score±s.d. for 17-item Hamilton Depression Rating Scale, 18.5±5.6). No subjects were taking hormones or hormonal contraception in the 3 months prior to study. Phase of menstrual cycle was not controlled—hormonal fluctuations may impact sensitivity to social rejection, but MOR binding potential in vivo is not influenced by phase in the menstrual cycle.34 All protocols were approved by the Institutional Review Board of the University of Michigan Medical School, and written informed consent was obtained.

Social feedback task

The social feedback task with PET has been previously described29 (Supplementary Methods). After each feedback trial, participants rated how 'sad', 'rejected', 'happy' and 'accepted' they felt. The scores for 'sad' and 'rejected', and 'happy' and 'accepted' during each trial were averaged for analysis. Word order was randomized in each trial. After each block, subjects completed the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale,35 the Desire for Social Interaction Scale29 and again rated how 'sad', 'rejected', 'happy' and 'accepted' they felt. All items were presented on a personal computer, and responses were obtained using a five-button response box. Scores for Ego Resiliency,36 a trait for successful psychological adjustment,37 were obtained prior to scanning. Planned two-tailed t-tests were performed to compare changes in ratings within subjects (paired analysis) and between groups.

PET and magnetic resonance imaging

Acquisition and reconstruction of PET images, quantification of binding potential and co-registration with structural MRs have been previously described29 (Supplementary Methods).

Image data analysis

A priori volumes of interest included structures that are rich in MORs, respond to social rejection and/or physical pain29, 30, 31, 38, 39 and were identical to those in a previous study29 (Supplementary Methods). 'MOR activation' was defined as the reduction in MOR binding potential from baseline to rejection or acceptance block (that is, baseline-rejection, baseline-acceptance). This metric represents competition between radiotracer and endogenous opioids, changes in the conformational state of the receptor after activation, and/or changes in receptor concentration via internalization and trafficking, all of which are related to endogenous opioid neurotransmission.40, 41

Blood collection and plasma cortisol analysis

All scans were conducted in the afternoon (1:30 pm–5:00 pm), when cortisol levels are more stable and approaching their nadir. Blood samples were collected from an indwelling venous catheter every 10 min for a total of 10 samples per scan (0–90 min). Samples were collected on ice and centrifuged at 3000 rpm for 10 min. Plasma was collected and stored at −80 °C until assay. Samples were not collected in four HCs and three MDD patients due to failed venous access, leaving a total of 14 subjects in each group for cortisol analysis.

Plasma cortisol assays were performed using IMMULITE 1000 (Siemens Medical Solutions, Diagnostic Division, Malvern, PA, USA), a solid-phase competitive chemiluminescent enzyme immunoassay system. Intra- and inter-assay variabilities were <8%. Areas under the curve were calculated for the last four time points (of five total) in each block in order to minimize potential carry-over effects from the previous block. Planned two-tailed t-tests were performed to compare changes in areas under the curve within subjects (paired analysis) and between groups.

Results

HCs and MDD patients reported feeling more 'sad and rejected' during rejection relative to baseline (HC, t16=5.11, P=0.0001; MDD, t16=5.47, P=0.00005); these increases were not statistically different between groups (Figures 1a and b, Supplementary Table 2). During acceptance, both groups reported feeling more 'happy and accepted' (HC, t16=3.71, P=0.002; MDD, t15=8.89, P<0.0001); these increases were greater in MDD patients compared with HCs (t32=2.79, P=0.009) (Figures 1c and d, Supplementary Table 2).

Figure 1
figure1

Changes in affect during PET scans. Ratings for ‘sad and rejected’ during (a) baseline and (b) rejection. Ratings for ‘happy and accepted’ during (c) baseline and (d) acceptance. (e) Ratings for ‘sad and rejected’ during rejection relative to baseline (trial ratings averaged), and measured again after each block. (f) Ratings for 'happy and accepted' during acceptance relative to baseline (trial ratings averaged), and measured again after each block. **P<0.01, two-tailed t-test (HC vs MDD).

PowerPoint slide

After rejection, MDDs but not HCs reported a significant decrease in self-esteem (MDD, t16=2.51, P=0.02). In addition, after rejection both groups reported a significant decrease in desire for social interaction (HC, t16=2.14, P=0.048; MDD, t16=5.38, P=0.00006); these decreases were not statistically different between groups (Supplementary Table 2). After acceptance, HCs but not in MDD patients reported an increase in self-esteem (HCs, t15=2.16, P=0.048) and desire for social interaction (HCs, t15=2.91, P=0.01) (Supplementary Table 2).

Ratings for 'sad and rejected' were measured again 5 minutes after the last rejection trial, indicating how quickly their ratings returned toward baseline. At that time point, HCs returned toward baseline levels, whereas MDD patients remained elevated (t31=3.02, P=0.005) (Figure 1e). Ratings for 'happy and accepted' were also measured 5 minutes after the last acceptance trial. At this time point, both HCs and MDD patients returned toward baseline levels (Figure 1f).

During rejection, MOR activation was significant in the right nucleus accumbens (NAcc), left and right amygdala, midline thalamus and periaqueductal gray in HCs. Significant activation was not found in MDD patients (Figures 2a and b, Table 1). MOR deactivation was not found in HCs, but was significant in the left and right amygdala in MDD patients (Figures 2c and d, Table 1). Expected patterns of MOR activation were obtained from group comparisons (Supplementary Table 3).

Figure 2
figure2

MOR activation/deactivation. MOR activation during rejection in (a) HCs and (b) MDD patients, and deactivation during rejection in (c) HCs and (d) MDD patients. MOR activation during acceptance in (e) HCs and (f) MDD patients, and deactivation in (g) HCs and (h) MDD patients. For all images, contrast t maps are rendered onto a template brain in MNI space. Display threshold: P<0.01, uncorrected. NAcc, nucleus accumbens; sgACC, subgenual anterior cingulate cortex; R, right.

PowerPoint slide

Table 1 MOR activation/deactivation during rejection and acceptance: within-group analyses

During acceptance, MOR activation was significant in the right anterior insula and left amygdala in HCs (Figure 2e, Table 1), and in the midline thalamus in MDD patients (Figure 2f, Table 1). MOR deactivation was significant in the midline thalamus and subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC) in HCs (Figure 2g, Table 1), and in the left NAcc in MDD patients (Figure 2h, Table 1). Expected patterns of MOR activation were obtained from group comparisons (Supplementary Table 3).

Ego Resiliency ratings were higher in HCs compared with MDD patients (t33=5.52, P=4 x 10−6), and were positively correlated with MOR activation during rejection in the amygdala (left, r=0.48, P=0.04; right, r=0.54, P=0.02), periaqueductal gray (r=0.66, P=0.003) and sgACC (r=0.65, P=0.003) in HCs but not in MDD patients (Figures 3a, b, and c). In HCs, those with higher Ego Resiliency had smaller reductions in self-esteem following rejection (r=0.67, P=0.003). This relationship was not found in MDD patients (Figure 3d). During acceptance, no significant correlations were found between Ego Resiliency and MOR activation or changes in self-esteem in HCs or MDD patients (Ps>0.24).

Figure 3
figure3

Trait Ego Resiliency and state changes. Ego Resiliency ratings vs MOR activation during rejection in volumes of interest (red outlines) in the (a) amygdala, (b) PAG and (c) sgACC. (d) Ego Resiliency vs changes in self-esteem during rejection. (e) Ratings for 'sad and rejected' vs MOR activation in the pgACC during rejection. (f) Ratings for the desire for social interaction vs MOR activation in the left NAcc during acceptance. NAcc, nucleus accumbens; PAG, periaqueductal gray; pgACC, pregenual anterior cingulate cortex; sgACC, subgenual anterior cingulate cortex.

PowerPoint slide

Ratings for 'sad and rejected' during rejection relative to baseline were negatively correlated with MOR activation in the pgACC in HCs (r=−0.73, P<0.001), but not in MDD patients (P=0.69) (Figure 3e). Increased desire for social interaction was positively correlated with MOR activation in the left NAcc following acceptance in HCs (r=0.60, P=0.01) but not in MDD patients (Figure 3f).

Plasma cortisol levels were not statistically different between rejection or acceptance relative to baseline in either HCs or MDD patients, and no group differences were found (Supplementary Table 2). In HCs but not in MDD patients, MOR activation was negatively correlated with cortisol changes during rejection. This relationship was found in the right amygdala (r=−0.69, P=0.006), and NAcc (left, r=−0.60, P=0.02; right, r=−0.59, P=0.03) (Figure 4).

Figure 4
figure4

MOR activation vs plasma cortisol. MOR activation during rejection vs plasma cortisol levels in the (a) right amygdala, (b) left NAcc and (c) right NAcc. NAcc, nucleus accumbens; AUC, area under the curve.

PowerPoint slide

Discussion

Altered endogenous opioid activity may be a mechanism for impaired emotion regulation during social rejection and acceptance in MDD. Despite strong, sustained negative affect during rejection in both groups, MOR activation in multiple brain regions was found only in HCs, whereas MDD patients showed MOR deactivation in the amygdala and slower emotional recovery from rejection. During acceptance, both groups reported increased positive affect, with MDD patients showing greater increases from baseline compared with HCs. However, this increase returned rapidly toward baseline after acceptance trials had ended. In MDD patients, MOR deactivation during acceptance was found in the NAcc, a reward structure. MOR activation in the NAcc in HCs but not in MDD patients was positively correlated with increases in the desire for social interaction, suggesting opioid involvement in the motivation to seek out positive social interaction during acceptance in HCs, but not in MDD patients.

During social rejection, MDD patients did not show significant activation in volumes of interest, whereas in HCs, MOR activation was found in the right NAcc, left and right amygdala, midline thalamus and periaqueductal gray (Figures 2a and b, Table 1), as previously described.29 These structures are high in MOR concentrations and part of a pathway by which stressors can influence mood and motivation;42 thus, MOR activation in these structures may reduce the negative impact of stressors. In contrast, MDD patients showed MOR deactivation in the amygdala (Figure 2c), which may contribute to blood-oxygen-level-dependent hyperactivity in the amygdala in MDD patients in response to negative social cues such as peer rejection.43 The present study also found a strong negative correlation between MOR activation in the pgACC, an area involved in emotion regulation,44 and increased ratings of negative affect during rejection in HCs but not in MDD patients (Figure 3e). Similarly, previous studies found a strong negative correlation between MOR activation in the pgACC and increased ratings of negative affect during self-induced sadness in HCs40 but not in MDD patients.45 Thus, in MDD an absence of MOR activation plus greater MOR deactivation in the amygdala, and the lack of relationship between MOR activation in the pgACC and negative affect may contribute to sustained negative affect after rejection.

Ego Resiliency is a trait conceptualized by Block36 as the ability to psychologically adapt across situations, and has been shown to correlate with faster emotional and physiological recovery from threat.37 Consistent with this concept, levels of Ego Resiliency were positively correlated with MOR activation in the amygdala, periaqueductal gray and sgACC in HCs during rejection, as previously described.29 This relationship was not found in any volumes of interest in MDD patients (Figures 3a, b, and c), possibly due to significantly lower Ego Resiliency ratings in MDD patients. The positive relationship between Ego Resiliency and MOR activation in HCs suggests that MOR activation during rejection is protective or adaptive. This hypothesis is consistent with the finding that Ego Resiliency was positively correlated with changes in self-esteem in HCs but not in MDD patients during rejection (Figure 3d). Path analyses in a larger sample size may test the hypothesis that MOR activation mediates the relationship between Ego Resiliency and changes in self-esteem during rejection.

As with social rejection, there were marked differences between groups during social acceptance, including MOR activation/deactivation, changes in affect and relationships between those measures. HCs showed activation in the left anterior insula and right amygdala, and deactivation in the midline thalamus and sgACC, whereas MDD patients showed activation in the midline thalamus and deactivation in the left NAcc (Figures 2e, f, g, and h). In HCs, this pattern of MOR activation is consistent with increased MOR activation in the anterior insula following amphetamine administration46 and in the amygdala during an amusing video clip,47 suggesting that MOR activation in these areas is related to positive affect. Also in HCs, MOR deactivation during acceptance in the midline thalamus and sgACC, both of which project heavily to the NAcc,42, 48 is a possible mechanism for facilitating positive affect. In rats, a MOR agonist injected into the medial thalamus raised the threshold for both pain and reward.49 Similarly, MOR deactivation in the sgACC may facilitate increased NAcc activity when one is liked.50 In contrast, MDD patients showed MOR activation in the midline thalamus, which may impede sustained positive affect. MDD patients also did not show MOR deactivation in the sgACC, a region shown to be functionally associated with anhedonia.51, 52 Unexpectedly, MDD patients reported a greater increase in positive affect relative to baseline during acceptance compared with HCs, however this increase was short-lived (Figure 1f), consistent with a recent study showing that MDD patients can indeed experience positive affect, but with a shorter duration compared with HCs.53 Moreover, only HCs showed significant increases in self-esteem and the desire for social interaction after acceptance (Supplementary Table 2). Thus, in response to social acceptance, MDD patients showed short-lived increases in positive affect that did not significantly increase self-esteem or social motivation.

As previously reported in HCs, increased MOR activation in the NAcc was positively correlated with an increased desire for social interaction,29 a finding consistent with a report in rats showing that MORs in the NAcc mediate social play behavior.28 The present study showed that after acceptance, HCs but not MDD patients reported a greater desire for social interaction, and that MOR activation in the left NAcc was positively correlated with increased desire for social interaction (Figure 3f). In contrast, MDD patients showed MOR deactivation in the left NAcc, which may contribute to abnormal NAcc activity related to anhedonia in MDD patients.54 Thus, in addition to having short-lived positive affect, MDD patients did not show increased social motivation, which in HCs was related to MOR activation in the NAcc.

There were no significant differences in plasma cortisol levels between rejection or acceptance relative to baseline within groups, and no differences were found between groups. In HCs, a significant negative correlation was found between MOR activation in the amygdala and NAcc and changes in cortisol levels during rejection, suggesting top–down MOR regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Previous studies suggest that the MOR system has a role in dampening stress-induced HPA axis activity by inhibiting corticotropin-releasing hormone in the hypothalamus.55, 56 Consistent with the hypothesis, MOR activation in the right amygdala was negatively correlated with cortisol levels during rejection (Figure 4a). Thus, MOR regulation of amygdala activity during rejection may dampen HPA axis activity, most likely through projections to the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, which in turn projects to the hypothalamus.57 MOR activation in the NAcc was also negatively correlated with cortisol (Figures 4b and c), although the pathway from the NAcc to the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus is less clear and likely involves multisynaptic pathways. The inhibitory influence of MOR activation on cortisol levels has also been reported in HCs during placebo administration for pain.58 Thus, MOR activation may dampen HPA activity during rejection, a mechanism impaired in MDD by the lack of MOR activation and/or the uncoupling of the MOR system and HPA axis.

In HCs, the pattern of MOR activation during rejection was similar to that found during physical pain,30, 59 supporting the theory that the regulation of social rejection and physical pain share overlapping neural pathways.29, 31, 32, 38, 39, 60, 61, 62 In contrast to the present findings, previous studies found opposite patterns of MOR activity in HCs and MDD patients during recall of a sad autobiographical event (death of a friend or family member, romantic break-ups or divorce). These studies found MOR deactivation in HCs (pgACC, ventral pallidum, amygdala and inferior temporal cortex)40 and MOR activation in MDD patients (anterior insula, thalamus, ventral basal ganglia and periamygdalar cortex).45 It is likely that different patterns of MOR activation are involved in responding to exteroceptive cues (for example, pain, rejection) vs permissive, interoceptive cues (for example, self-induced sadness). For example, in functional magnetic resonance imaging studies where subjects viewed a photo of a romantic ex-partner (exteroceptive cue), increased blood-oxygen-level-dependent signal was found in the ventral striatum, thalamus, anterior insula and ACC.38, 63 In contrast, recalling sad thoughts about a recent romantic break-up (interoceptive cue) resulted in deactivation in similar areas.64

The present study supports previous work in animal models and has the potential to translate into clinical applications. Interestingly, one of the earliest studies to show evidence for endogenous opioid release during social interactions was found in rats using subtractive autoradiography,65 a method with conceptual similarities to the neuroimaging method used in the present study. This and other animal studies19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28 along with the present study in humans suggest that the endogenous opioids serve similar roles in social behavior across several species, supporting future translational work. For example, animal studies may provide more detailed analysis of the genetic substrates causing altered MOR function in the social environment. Indeed, a functional variation of the MOR gene has been shown in humans to be associated with the dispositional and neural sensitivity to social rejection,31 and may be useful in the early detection of vulnerability to MDD in the social environment. In summary, the present study supports further investigation of the interaction between the endogenous opioid system, social environment, and pathophysiology and maintenance of MDD.

Conclusions

MDD patients showed a lack of regional activation as well as a greater deactivation of the MOR system during social rejection and acceptance. This may be a mechanism for slower/incomplete recovery from rejection and poorly sustained engagement in positive social interactions. Future studies will need to replicate these results and examine the causal relationship between these alterations and MDD.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by National Institute of Health grants K01 MH085035 (DTH), K23 MH074459 (SAL), R01 DA022520 and R01 DA027494 (JKZ), a Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Young Investigator Award (DTH), Rachel Upjohn Clinical Scholars Award (DTH), pilot grants from the Michigan Institute for Clinical & Health Research (DTH), and the Phil F Jenkins Foundation (JKZ). We thank the Nuclear Medicine technologists for performing the PET scans, Ramin Ranjbar for performing the cortisol assays, and Dr Audrey Seasholtz for analysis support of cortisol assays (University of Michigan).

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Correspondence to D T Hsu.

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Dr RAK is a consultant for Avid Corp., Merck and Johnson & Johnson; Dr BJM received salary support from St. Jude Medical for research unrelated to this manuscript. The remaining authors declare no conflict of interest.

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Hsu, D., Sanford, B., Meyers, K. et al. It still hurts: altered endogenous opioid activity in the brain during social rejection and acceptance in major depressive disorder. Mol Psychiatry 20, 193–200 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/mp.2014.185

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