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Love blocks pain, Stanford study shows

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Intense, passionate feelings of love can block pain in ways similar to painkillers or illicit drugs like cocaine, according to a Stanford study published online in PLoS One today. And the stronger the love, the stronger the analgesic affects.

“People who were thinking about their partner more than 50 percent of the day had three times the analgesic benefits,” Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Pain Management and senior author of the study, told me. “I was just really shocked at how much of the day they spent thinking about their beloved.”

Mackey and his Stanford colleagues worked with an expert in the area of love research to figure out a way to successfully measure the effects of love on the brain. The study involved putting 15 Stanford undergraduates - all who were in the first blush of undying, can’t-think-of-anything-but phase of passionate love - into brain-scanning machines.

Each participant was asked to bring in photos of their beloved and photos of an equally attractive acquaintance. The researchers then successively flashed the pictures before the subjects, while heating up a computer-controlled thermal stimulator placed in the palm of their hand to cause mild pain.

Study author Arthur Aron, PhD, a professor of psychology at State University of New York at Stony Brook, who has been studying love for 30 years, explained the findings in a release:

It turns out that the areas of the brain activated by intense love are the same areas that drugs use to reduce pain. 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, apparently, when you eat chocolate.

“I suppose you could say that a strong, healthy passionate relationship could reduce pain,” first author Jarred Younger, PhD, a Stanford experimental psychologist, concluded.

The problem is, this phase of love rarely lasts longer than a year or two and often gets replaced by bone-crushing pain - which the scientist didn’t measure in this study.

“Falling in love, we glorify it, but it’s often a disruptive force,” said Aron. “Look at Romeo and Juliet. How did that work out?”

The next possibility for research is using drugs - opioid blockers - to shut down the effects of love on these brain pathways for a short period of time, Mackey said. The question is, will the analgesic affects disappear, and more interestingly, will love disappear?

Photo by Lisa Brewster

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