Botox: All fill and no thrill

Cosmetic surgery is a very hot topic in the news at the moment – whether it concerns the almost unrecognisable Renee Zellweger, Kyle Jenner’s ever expanding lips or Kim Kardashian’s infamous rear-end. Most articles superficially focus on the moral dilemmas implicated with surgery – i.e. these celebrities are supposedly among the most beautiful and successful people in the world, but are still made to feel as though they aren’t quite good enough in the public eye, resulting in undergoing painful (and sometimes risky) procedures to feel confident. However, the science behind the procedures, and the scientific implications, are rarely touched upon.

Botox, as of 2013, is the most popular cosmetic procedure worldwide. It is derived from the neurotoxin Botulinum, produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. There are 7 types of botulinum toxins produced: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. Despite the toxin being lethal, minute quantities of several different types of toxins (Type A: Botox, Dysport and Xeomin, and type B: MyoBlock) can be used cosmetically. The toxins are used to paralyse the muscles in an individual’s face, reducing the appearance of wrinkles.

The facial paralysation occurs due to the injection of Botox into the neuromuscular synaptic cleft (the extracellular space between two neurons), where the neurotoxin is absorbed into the neurone. Once it has entered the neurone, it cleaves a protein known as SNAP-25, which normally enables vesicles to release the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter would usually diffuse across the cleft, bind to post synaptic receptors, and stimulate contraction of the muscles. The cutting of SNAP-25 prevents acetylcholine release, and therefore prevents muscle contraction.

However, it has recently been acknowledged that – whilst many say Botox increases their confidence in their appearance – certain unconsidered psychological effects may occur. In 1884, William James and Carl Lange derived the theory that ‘motion is emotion’. Common sense suggests that the physical display of our moods (e.g. smiling, frowning, crying) is a result of our emotion. For example, if we see a wild bear we feel afraid, so our heartbeat rises and we look scared.

However, James and Lange suggest that these events occur in a different order: we see a bear, our heart rate rises, our face looks scared, and it is this that tells our brain that we should feel afraid. Scientifically, an external stimulus evokes a physiological response, which causes you to feel an appropriate emotion. Whilst the theory has been criticised many times, it is extremely difficult to disprove.

How does this theory link to Botox? Well, if the feeling of emotion is caused by physiological changes, then the reduction of these changes in the facial muscles may possibly dampen the feelings of emotion. Plastic surgeons would argue that this is a good thing – the lack of ability to frown will reduce feelings of disappointment or depression.

This theory can be extended to suggest that ‘Botoxed’ individuals may struggle to empathise. Empathy is often considered to be displayed by two people’s micro expressions mimicking one another: these are our brief, involuntary expressions which show our unconscious emotions. The mimicry carried out by the listener stimulates a signal to feel similar emotions to the teller of the story, allowing empathy.

A recent study carried out by Drs. David Neal and Tanya Chartrand for Social Psychological and Personality Science compared the identification of emotions by an experimental group (16 recent Botox patients) and a control group (individuals who had not undergone Botox). This occurred by the viewing of 36 different photographs, and the selection of the emotion being conveyed by the photograph, out of four options. On average, the experimental group got 70% of answers correct, whilst the control group got 77%. Whilst this is not an overwhelming difference, it does support the idea that Botox impairs emotion recognition, which this study generalised through the ability to empathise.

Hilary Robinson

Image: The Sugar Hub

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