Oct. 13, 2010 -- The euphoric “high” that accompanies the passion-filled, early days of romantic love is a common pop music theme, but is it just a metaphor or is love really like a drug?
“The reason people are so attracted to cocaine is that it activates the area of the brain that makes you feel good,” researcher Arthur Aron, PhD, tells WebMD. “The same reward area is activated when people are experiencing the intense desire of romantic love.”
Intense Love = Less Pain
Aron, who is a professor of psychology at State University of New York (SUNY) Stony Brook, has been researching the impact of love on the brain for three decades.
Several years ago he and longtime pain researcher Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, began talking at a neuroscience conference and conceived the idea for the study.
Mackey is chief of the division of pain management and an associate professor of anesthesia at Stanford University Medical Center in California.
“He was talking about the neural systems involved with love and I was talking about the neural systems involved with pain, and we realized there was a lot of overlap,” Mackey says.
They recruited couples in the first few months of romantic relationships for the study by posting notices around Stanford University. The researchers specifically focused on the euphoric, obsessive phase of early love rather than more mature romantic relationships.
“Our subjects fit into this category of recklessly, widely, passionately in love, and it was the easiest recruiting we ever did,” Mackey tells WebMD. “The fliers asked ‘Are you in love?’ and within hours we had a dozen couples beating on our doors.”
The hypothesis was that love affected the brain in the same way many addictive drugs do, by targeting the “feel good” chemical in the brain known as dopamine. This reward system has also been shown to be critical in pain management.
Targeted Pain Treatments
The study included eight female and seven male students who were asked to bring photographs of their loved one to the lab along with photos of an equally attractive friend of the same sex as their romantic interest.
MRI scans recorded what was happening in their brains as they viewed the pictures while holding in their hands a computer-controlled thermal device that got increasingly hotter as the experiment progressed.
Throughout the experiment, the participants were asked to record the pain they felt from the device on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 representing “no pain” and 10 representing “the worst pain imaginable.”
Because distraction has been shown to affect pain, one phase of the experiment involved distracting the participants by asking them questions that had nothing to do with the study.
The brain imaging showed that both love and distraction reduced pain, but in different ways.
When distracted, the brain pathway affecting the sensation of pain was mostly centered in the higher, 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 the findings show the potential for more targeted approaches to pain relief that may or may not involve drugs.
Mackey says the way we manage pain today will be considered the Dark Ages by future generations.
“Right now we use antidepressants, antiseizure drugs, and cardiac arrhythmia drugs to treat pain in patients who don’t have seizures or arrhythmias and may not even be depressed,” he says. “The hope is that in the future we will develop targeted treatments that specifically address the abnormal neural systems involved in pain.”