Love better than drugs in reducing pain: neuroscientists
March 3, 2011
Neuroimaging researchers at Stanford School of Medicine have linked feelings of the early stages of a new romantic relationship (intense feelings of euphoria, well-being, and preoccupation with the romantic partner) to activation of reward systems in the human brain.
The results of those studies may be relevant to pain management in humans, suggest the researchers, since it is known that pharmacologic activation of reward systems can substantially reduce pain.
They hypothesized that pain relief evoked by viewing pictures of a romantic partner would be associated with neural activations in reward-processing centers. In a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, they examined 15 individuals in the first nine months of a new romantic relationship.
The participants completed three tasks under periods of moderate and high thermal pain: viewing pictures of their romantic partner; viewing pictures of an equally attractive and familiar acquaintance; and 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 pain-reduction 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.