Study shows that chronic grief activates pleasure areas of the brain

Grief is universal, and most of us will probably experience the pain grief brings at some point in our lives, usually with the death of a loved one. In time, we move on, accepting the loss. But for a substantial minority, it's impossible to let go, and even years later, any reminder of their loss - a picture, a memory - brings on a fresh wave of grief and yearning. The question is, why? Why do some grieve and ultimately adapt, while others can't get over the loss of someone held dear?

 

Reporting in the journal NeuroImage, scientists at UCLA suggest that such long-term or complicated grief activates neurons in the reward centers of the brain, possibly giving these memories addiction-like properties. Their research is currently available in the journal's online edition. This study is the first to compare those with complicated and noncomplicated grief, and future research in this area may help psychologists do a better job of treating those with complicated grief, according to Mary-Frances O'Connor, UCLA assistant professor of psychiatry and lead author of the study.

 

The study analyzed whether those with complicated grief had greater activity occurring in either the brain's reward network or pain network than those with noncomplicated grief. The researchers looked at 23 women who had lost a mother or a sister to breast cancer. (Grief is very problematic among survivors of breast cancer patients, particularly among female family members who have increased risk based on their family history). They found that, of that number, 11 had complicated grief, and 12 had the more normal, noncomplicated grief.