Long-term opiate users experience pervasive social difficulties, but there has been surprisingly limited research focused on social-cognitive functioning in this population.
The aim of this study was to investigate whether three important aspects of social cognition (facial emotion recognition, theory of mind (ToM) and rapid facial mimicry) differ between long-term opiate users and healthy controls.
The participants were 25 long-term opiate users who were enrolled in opiate substitution programmes, and 25 healthy controls. Facial emotion recognition accuracy was indexed by responses to 60 photographs of faces depicting the six basic emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust). ToM was assessed using the Reading the Mind in the Eyes task, which requires participants to infer mental states of others from partial facial cues. Rapid facial mimicry was assessed by recording activity in the zygomaticus major and corrugator supercilii muscle regions while participants passively viewed images of happy and angry facial expressions.
Relative to the control group, the opiate user group exhibited deficits in both facial emotion recognition and ToM. Moreover, only control participants exhibited typical rapid facial mimicry responses to happy facial expressions.
These data indicate that long-term opiate users exhibit abnormalities in three distinct areas of social-cognitive processing, pointing to the need for additional work to establish how social-cognitive functioning relates to functional outcomes in this group. Such work may ultimately inform the development of interventions aimed at improving treatment outcomes for long-term opiate users.