Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Your Love is My Drug (...apparently it really is!)

"Your Love is My Drug" is the title of a popular song these days. And a recent paper published in PLoS One seems to substantiate the thesis that love is in fact a drug. More specifically, it can function as a painkiller.

The abstract of the study:

The early stages of a new romantic relationship are characterized by intense feelings of euphoria, well-being, and preoccupation with the romantic partner. Neuroimaging research has linked those feelings to activation of reward systems in the human brain. The results of those studies may be relevant to pain management in humans, as basic animal research has shown that pharmacologic activation of reward systems can substantially reduce pain. Indeed, viewing pictures of a romantic partner was recently demonstrated to reduce experimental thermal pain. We hypothesized that pain relief evoked by viewing pictures of a romantic partner would be associated with neural activations in reward-processing centers. In this functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, we examined fifteen individuals in the first nine months of a new, romantic relationship. Participants completed three tasks under periods of moderate and high thermal pain: 1) viewing pictures of their romantic partner, 2) viewing pictures of an equally attractive and familiar acquaintance, and 3) a word-association distraction task previously demonstrated to reduce pain. The partner and distraction tasks both significantly reduced self-reported pain, although only the partner task was associated with activation of reward systems. Greater analgesia while viewing pictures of a romantic partner was associated with increased activity in several reward-processing regions, including the caudate head, nucleus accumbens, lateral orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – regions not associated with distraction-induced analgesia. The results suggest that the activation of neural reward systems via non-pharmacologic means can reduce the experience of pain.

And the Globe has the scoop on the findings here. A sample:

“At moderate pain levels, it is very effective. It is at least the equivalent as Tylenol 3, which has a little bit of codeine it in. I don’t know if it would beat out OxyContin, but it could be very close,’’ says Jarred Younger, an assistant professor of anesthesia at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. Dr. Younger recruited volunteers who were in the heady first months of a romantic relationship for a brain-imaging study on love and pain.

Previous research has shown that looking at the photo of a romantic partner can reduce the amount of physical pain someone feels, but this is the first to show the brain regions involved. Love turns on reward circuitry in the brain, as do drugs such as cocaine or codeine, Dr. Younger said. Those drugs kick-start the body’s analgesic systems, he said, and stop pain signals from leaving the spinal cord for the brain."