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Love Is A Drug — A Pain Reliever

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Turns out love acts in your brain like a drug, too — it lights up your reward centers just like cocaine, and dampens pain like a good anesthetic.

A new Stanford study just out in the journal PLOS ONE — weird name but excellent scientific journal — scanned the brains of undergraduates as they experienced the pain of a "thermal stimulator" on the palms of their hands. When a picture of their beloved was flashed before them, it provided not just distraction but actual relief. And the brain pathways resembled those involved in the highs of illicit drugs.

Stanford reports:

"It turns out that the areas of the brain activated by intense love are the same areas that drugs use to reduce pain," said Arthur Aron, PhD, a professor of psychology at State University of New York at Stony Brook and one of the study's authors. Aron has been studying love for 30 years. "When thinking about your beloved, there is intense activation in the reward area of the brain — the same area that lights up when you take cocaine, the same area that lights up when you win a lot of money."

And here's some fun background, also from Stanford:

The concept for the study was sparked several years ago at a neuroscience conference when Aron, an expert in the study of love, met up with [lead author Sean Mackey of Stanford], an expert in the research of pain, and they began talking.

"Art was talking about love," Mackey said. "I was talking about pain. He was talking about the brain systems involved with love. I was talking about the brain systems involved with pain. We realized there was this tremendous overlapping system. We started wondering, 'Is it possible that the two modulate each other?'"

Studies, including this one, have also found that non-romantic distraction reduces pain. But differently. One of the researchers on the paper, Jarred Younger, told Stanford:

"With the distraction test, the brain pathways leading to pain relief were mostly cognitive," Younger said. "The reduction of pain was associated with higher, cortical parts of the brain. Love-induced analgesia is much more associated with the reward centers. It appears to involve more primitive aspects of the brain, activating deep structures that may block pain at a spinal level — similar to how opioid analgesics work.

This program aired on October 15, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth blog.

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