Can Your Everyday Pain Reliever Cause Risky Behavior?

Risk-Taking in the Brain

What happens when you pop a couple of pain relievers for that headache? According to a new study, it could induce risky behavior. Yes, that everyday over-the-counter acetaminophen (aka Tylenol and Panadol) could make you act uncharacteristically risky. That’s concerning considering this analgesic is used in over 600 medications and is one of the most commonly consumed substances in the U.S.

In this 2020 study, which appeared in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, over 500 participants engaged in an experiment that involved pumping up a balloon on a computer screen. With each and every pump, they earned imaginary money. The overall goal? Earn as much money as possible without popping the balloon, which would cause them to lose all the money.

One group of the participants took a single 1,000 mg dose of acetaminophen, while the other group took a placebo. The group that took the pain reliever took more risks, giving their balloons more pumps and ultimately popping their balloons more often. The group that didn’t take acetaminophen was more conservative in the number of pumps, opting to cash out earlier rather than risk losing the money.

This task, known as the Balloon Analog Risk Task (BART) is commonly used in scientific studies, and performance on it is predictive of alcohol and drug use, risky sexual behavior, and other types of delinquent behavior.

The two groups were also asked to rate how risky they viewed a variety of hypothetical activities on a scale from 1-7 (1 being not at all risky, 7 being extremely risky), such as passing off somebody else’s work as your own, bungee jumping off a tall bridge, driving a car without a seat belt, or betting a day’s wages on a high-stakes poker game. The results on this appeared to be mixed, but the research team concluded that there’s a significant association between taking acetaminophen and taking greater risks. They suggest that the common drug reduces negative emotions associated with taking risks, ultimately making people feel less scared.

These findings build on a body of research that shows acetaminophen also reduces hurt feelings and decreases empathy, among other psychological factors. It’s unclear how acetaminophen works in the brain, but brain SPECT imaging offers clues to risky behavior.

Risk-Taking in the Brain

What makes some people want to engage in high-risk activities, such as drug and alcohol use, gambling, extramarital affairs, free climbing (mountain climbing without any safety ropes), and skydiving?

SPECT scans of people who are daredevils typically show reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is considered the executive part of the brain. It is the most evolved part of the human brain and is involved with focus, forethought, judgment, organization, planning, impulse control, empathy, and learning from mistakes.

The PFC helps you think about what you say or do before you say or do it. For example, if you’re having a disagreement with your spouse and you have good PFC function, you’re more likely to give a thoughtful response that helps the situation. If you have poor PFC function, you’re more likely to blurt out something that will make the situation worse.

The PFC helps you problem-solve, see ahead of a situation, and through experience, choose among the most helpful alternatives. This is also the part of the brain that helps you learn from your mistakes. Good PFC function doesn’t mean that you won’t make mistakes. Rather, it generally means that you won’t make the same mistake over and over. You’re able to learn from the past and apply its lessons.

Impulse control is also heavily influenced by the PFC. The ability to think through the consequences of your behavior and put the brakes on things that are too high risk is essential for effective living. Without proper PFC function, it’s difficult to rein in your impulses, and you’re more likely to give in to unhealthy urges.

Problems with Low PFC Activity

At Amen Clinics, underactivity in the PFC is often seen in people with:

Strategies to Strengthen the PFC

You can strengthen your PFC if it is underactive. Engage in the following strategies to enhance activity in the PFC.

  • Eat a higher-protein diet: Focusing your diet on high-quality, lean proteins with fewer carbohydrates enhances focus and concentration.
  • Do aerobic exercise: Physical activity boosts blood flow to the brain to enhance cerebral activity.
  • Neurofeedback: Neurofeedback is a non-invasive therapy that helps strengthen and retrain the brain to achieve a healthier state.
  • Meditation: A wealth of research has found that contrary to the popular belief that meditation calms the brain, it actually activates the PFC.
  • Ask yourself “Then what?”: Before saying or doing anything, think about the consequences. If I do this, “Then what” will happen? If I say this, “Then what” will happen? This can help keep you from taking risks that jeopardize your health, relationships, or career.
  • Know your goals. Create a One Page Miracle that includes what you want from your life in terms of your health, career, relationships, and spirituality. Look at your OPM every day and ask yourself if your behavior is getting you what you want.
  • Take nutraceuticals: Omega-3 fatty acids, green tea, rhodiola, ginseng, and ashwagandha boost blood flow to the brain.

Unhealthy risk-taking that negatively impacts your relationships, job or finances, or health can’t wait. During these uncertain times, your mental well-being is more important than ever and waiting until life gets back to “normal” is likely to make your symptoms worsen over time.

At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.


  1. Great read! Enlightening and informative in looking at learning self control and why we behave the way we do.


    Comment by Rhonda Campbell — November 20, 2020 @ 6:22 AM

  2. Such valuable information in a readable format. Empowering that we can do many things to make a good prefrontal cortex!

    Comment by Denise Caruselle — November 21, 2020 @ 5:27 AM

  3. Very easy-to-understand information on the PFC. I may use that with my jr-high students. (and their parents!)

    Comment by Jill Curry — November 24, 2020 @ 8:18 PM

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