October 13, 2010 – The ‘euphoric’ euphoria that accompanies the passionate early days of romantic love is a common theme in pop music, but is it just a metaphor or is love really a drug?
When the researchers looked at the issue, they found that intense feelings of romantic love affect the brain much like drugs like cocaine or strong pain relievers.
âThe reason people are so drawn to cocaine is that it activates the area of ââthe brain that makes you feel good,â researcher Arthur Aron, PhD, tells WebMD. “The same reward zone is activated when people experience the intense desire for romantic love.”
Intense love = less pain
Aron, professor of psychology at the State University of New York (SUNY) Stony Brook, has studied the impact of love on the brain for three decades.
Several years ago, he and longtime pain researcher Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, began speaking at a neuroscience conference and came up with the idea for the study.
Mackey is the Division Chief of Pain Management and Associate Professor of Anesthesia at Stanford University Medical Center in California.
âHe was talking about the neural systems involved in love and I was talking about the neural systems involved in pain, and we realized there was a lot of overlap,â Mackey said.
They recruited couples in the first few months of dating for the study by posting reviews around Stanford University. Researchers specifically focused on the euphoric and obsessive phase of early love rather than more mature romantic relationships.
âOur subjects fall into this category of reckless love, widely and passionately, and it was the easiest recruiting we’ve ever done,â Mackey told WebMD. âThe flyers asked ‘Are you in love?’ and within hours we had a dozen couples knocking on our doors.
The hypothesis was that love affected the brain in much the same way as many addictive drugs, by targeting the âfeel-goodâ chemical in the brain known as dopamine. This reward system has also been shown to be essential in pain management.
Targeted pain treatments
The study included eight female and seven college students who were asked to bring photographs of their loved one to the lab as well as photos of an equally attractive friend of the same sex as their romantic interest.
MRI scans recorded what was going on in their brains as they viewed the images while holding a computer-controlled thermal device in their hands that got hotter and hotter as the experience progressed.
Throughout the experiment, participants were asked to record the pain experienced by the device on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 representing “no pain” and 10 representing “the worst pain imaginable”.
Since distraction has been shown to affect pain, one phase of the experiment involved distracting participants by asking them questions that had nothing to do with the study.
Brain imaging has shown love and distraction to reduce pain, but in different ways.
When distracted, the brain pathway affecting the sensation of pain was mainly centered in the upper cortical part of the brain, while the impact of love was on the brain’s dopamine-related reward center.
The study appears online today in the publication PLoS One.
Aron and Mackey agree that the results show the potential for more targeted approaches to pain relief that may or may not involve medication.
Mackey says the way we deal with pain today will be seen as the Dark Ages by future generations.
“Right now, we use antidepressants, anti-epileptics, and heart arrhythmia drugs to treat pain in patients who don’t have seizures or arrhythmias and who may not even be depressed,” says -he. “The hope is that in the future we will develop targeted treatments that specifically address the abnormal neural systems involved in pain.”