Study shows that chronic grief activates pleasure areas of the brain

June 20, 2008

Findings could change how health professionals treat the disorder
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 activations.

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.

Source: University of California - Los Angeles

Explore further: Treating chronic, unremitting grief

Related Stories

Treating chronic, unremitting grief

November 15, 2016

After Stephanie Muldberg's 13-year-old son Eric died of Ewing's sarcoma in 2004, she was lost in a sea of grief. Her days were long, unstructured, monotonous. She barely left her New Jersey home. When she did leave, she planned ...

Emotional grief could lead to heart attack

February 2, 2012

In the past, suffering from a broken heart was simply a way to describe the emotional pain one felt when dealing with a personal misfortune—a breakup or even the death of a loved one.  

What is love? Here's the science

May 18, 2016

We've all felt it at some time in our lives. Poets write about it, singers sing about it – and a whole industry has grown up around finding it, expressing it and maintaining it. But what is love? Where does it reside? What ...

Recommended for you

Study shows blood products unaffected by drone trips

December 7, 2016

In what is believed to be the first proof-of-concept study of its kind, Johns Hopkins researchers have determined that large bags of blood products, such as those transfused into patients every day, can maintain temperature ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.