Chronic Grief Activates Neurons in Pleasure Area

Photo: Human brain

What happens in the human brain
when someone cannot get over the
loss of a beloved one? © SXC

Grief is universal, and most people will probably experience the pain grief brings at some point in their life, usually with the death of a loved one. In time, people usually move on, accepting the loss. But for a substantial minority, it is impossible to let go, even years later.

In a recent study scientists suggest that such long-term or "complicated" grief activates neurons in the reward centers of the brain, possibly giving these memories addiction - like properties. "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," Mary-Frances O'Connor, Assistant Professor of University of California, said. "After the loved one dies, those who adapt to the loss stop getting this neural reward. But those who do not adapt continue to crave it, because each time they do see a cue, they still get that neural reward.”

The researchers looked at 23 women who had lost a mother or a sister to breast cancer. They found that, of that number, eleven had complicated grief, and twelve had the more normal, non-complicated grief. Each of the study participants brought a photograph of their deceased loved one and was 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. 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 activations.

MEDICA.de; Source: University of California