Chronic Grief Activates Pleasure Areas Of The
June 23, 2008
Grief is universal, and most of us will probably experience the pain grief
brings at some point in our lives, usually with the death of a loved one. In
time, we move on, accepting the loss.
But for a substantial minority, it's impossible to let go, and even years later,
any reminder of their loss - a picture, a memory - brings on a fresh wave of
grief and yearning. The question is, why? Why do some grieve and ultimately
adapt, while others can't get over the loss of someone held dear?
Reporting in the journal NeuroImage, scientists at UCLA suggest that such
long-term or "complicated" grief activates neurons in the reward
centers of the brain, possibly giving these memories addiction-like properties.
Their research is currently available in the journal's online edition.
This study is the first to compare those with complicated and noncomplicated
grief, and future research in this area may help psychologists do a better job
of treating those with complicated grief, according to Mary-Frances O'Connor,
UCLA assistant professor of psychiatry and lead author of the study.
"The idea is that when our loved ones are alive, we get a rewarding cue
from seeing them or things that remind us of them," O'Connor said.
"After the loved one dies, those who adapt to the loss stop getting this
neural reward. But those who don't adapt continue to crave it, because each time
they do see a cue, they still get that neural reward.
"Of course, all of this is outside of conscious thought, so there isn't an
intention about it," she said.
The study analyzed whether those with complicated grief had greater activity
occurring in either the brain's reward network or pain network than those with
noncomplicated grief. The researchers looked at 23 women who had lost a mother
or a sister to breast cancer. (Grief is very problematic among survivors of
breast cancer patients, particularly among female family members who have
increased risk based on their family history). They found that, of that number,
11 had complicated grief, and 12 had the more normal, noncomplicated grief.
Each of the study participants brought a photograph of their deceased loved one
and were shown this picture while undergoing brain scanning by functional
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Next, they were scanned while looking at a
photograph of a female stranger.
The authors looked for activity in the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain
most commonly associated with reward and one that has also been shown to play a
role in social attachment, such as sibling and maternal affiliation. They also
examined activity in the pain network of the brain, including the dorsal
anterior cingulate cortex and the insula, which has been implicated in both
physical and social pain. They found that while both groups had activation in
the pain network of the brain after viewing a picture of their loved one, only
individuals with complicated grief showed significant nucleus accumbens
Complicated grief can be debilitating, involving recurrent pangs of painful
emotions, including intense yearning, longing and searching for the deceased,
and a preoccupation with thoughts of the loved one. This syndrome has now been
defined by an empirically derived set of criteria and is being considered for
inclusion in the DSM-V, the psychiatric manual for diagnosing mental disorders.
O'Connor, who is a member of UCLA's Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology,
cautions that she is not suggesting that such reveries about the deceased are
emotionally satisfying but rather that they may serve in some people as a type
of craving for the reward response that may make adapting to the reality of the
loss more difficult.
Article adapted by Medical News Today from original press release.
The study was funded by the California Breast Cancer Research Program. Other
authors included David K. Wellisch, Annette L. Stanton, Naomi I. Eisenberger,
Michael R. Irwin and Matthew D. Lieberman, all of UCLA.
The UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology brings together
research expertise in the behavioral sciences, neuroscience and immunology to
understand the interplay of psychological and biological factors in disease and
how the resiliency of the human body can be aided by positive behaviors,
attitudes and emotions. The center is part of the Semel Institute for
Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, an interdisciplinary research and
education institute devoted to the understanding of complex human behavior,
including the genetic, biological, behavioral and sociocultural underpinnings of
normal behavior, and the causes and consequences of neuropsychiatric disorders.
Source: Mark Wheeler
of California - Los Angeles
Medical News Today: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com
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