Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Brain study shows why fresh romance can ease pain

Falling in love can act as a potent painkiller, and now scientists have figured out why: It stimulates the brain's reward pathway, much like the rush of an addictive drug.

The next question is whether better understanding of the love-pain relationship might somehow help scientists tackle chronic pain. Falling head over heels isn't exactly something a doctor can prescribe.

But "maybe prescribing a little passion in one's relationship can go a long way toward helping with one's chronic pain — assuming it's passion with the one you're with," said study co-author Dr. Sean Mackey, chief of pain management at Stanford University.

The story begins with psychology professor Arthur Aron of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who studies the neurology of love. His work has linked that euphoric phase of a fresh romance to brain regions rich in the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is key to what's called the brain's reward pathway, the feel-good mechanisms that encourage certain behaviors. Eating sweets, for example, boosts this system — and addictive drugs like cocaine hijack it.

"When people are in love, in many ways it's not dissimilar to what they get when they take amphetamines or stimulants: They're very excited, have loss of appetite, sleep loss, they're active, full of energy," noted Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and a dopamine expert.

Then pain specialists noticed that if someone in an intense romance gazes at a picture of his or her amour while being poked or prodded, they feel less pain.

Is that because their love is distracting them from the pain? After all, specialists often advise sufferers to listen to music or try other steps to take their mind off the pain. Or did love work some other way? Mackey and Stanford colleague Dr. Jarred Younger teamed with Aron to find out.

They put up campus signs seeking love-struck Stanford undergrads and within hours couples were flocking in, "the easiest study we have ever recruited for in my entire career," said Mackey.

Fifteen people underwent a battery of tests. They looked at either a picture of their new love or a picture of an attractive acquaintance, or were given distracting tasks such as to list sports that don't involve balls. Researchers touched them with a hot wand to induce moderate pain, and scanned their brains.

Looking at their loved one and distraction produced equal pain relief — but the distraction worked through cognitive pathways while the romance triggered a surge in that reward pathway, the team reported in the journal PLoS One.

That means the brain can generate pain-controlling responses without medications that perhaps, "if we understood them better, we could trigger them," said NIDA's Volkow.

Caution: New love's flush can fade to commitment, which doesn't trigger the same brain response. But Aron said he recently found that doing something new and exciting with a longtime partner stirs up that old passion, "a good idea whether you're in pain or not."

Brain study shows why fresh romance can ease pain 11/05/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:08pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Once 'angry' about Obamacare, Republican David Jolly came to see it as 'safety net'


    Former Congressman David Jolly, who ran against Obamacare in 2013, said in an interview Monday night that he now considers it a "safety net."

  2. Five children hospitalized after chlorine release at Tampa pool store


    Five children were sickened at a pool store north of Tampa on Monday after a cloud of chlorine was released, according to Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.

  3. Deputies find unidentified decomposing body in Dunedin canal

    Public Safety

    DUNEDIN — Pinellas County sheriff's deputies found an unidentified male body floating in a Dunedin canal Monday afternoon, the Sheriff's Office said.

  4. Rays acquire slick-fielding shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria from Marlins

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Chaim Bloom said the Rays weren't necessarily in the market for a shortstop. The team has a number of those. But when the Marlins recently began shopping Adeiny Hechavarria, well, that was too much to pass up.

    Adeiny Hechavarria has emerged as one of baseball’s top defensive shortstops in the past three seasons with the Marlins.
  5. Lightning journal: Forward Yanni Gourde agrees to two-year deal

    Lightning Strikes

    TAMPA — Just three years ago, Yanni Gourde was fighting to stay in pro hockey.

    Tampa Bay Lightning center Yanni Gourde celebrates after scoring against the Florida Panthers during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, March 11, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) TPA108