Love con­quers pain

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - HEALTH -

SOONER or later, love usu­ally ends up hurt­ing. But in its early, bliss­ful throes, it ac­tu­ally lessens pain – at least, the phys­i­cal kind.

That’s the find­ing of a study by pain sci­en­tists and a psy­chol­o­gist who stud­ies love.

The study, pub­lished on­line in the jour­nal PLoS One re­cently, sprang from a meet­ing of minds be­tween Arthur Aron of State Uni­ver­sity of New York at Stony Brook, a long­time re­searcher of the sci­ence of love, and Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity pain sci­en­tist Dr Sean Mackey. The two shared a ho­tel room while at­tend­ing a neu­ro­science con­fer­ence a few years back. Their epiphany came one evening over drinks.

“I’d had a cou­ple glasses of Zin­fan­del (wine), and was chat­ting about pain and the brain sys­tems in­volved, and he was chat­ting about love and the brain sys­tems in­volved,” Dr Mackey said. “And we re­alised, you know, they could be in­flu­enc­ing each other.”

They knew that a few ear­lier stud­ies had sug­gested that love re­lieved pain, but they wanted to go fur­ther and find out just what was hap­pen­ing in the brain.

They put out a call on the Stan­ford cam­pus for peo­ple who were in the first nine months of a re­la­tion­ship and still in the throes of ro­man­tic pas­sion.

“It was clearly the eas­i­est study we’ve ever re­cruited for – within hours we had these stu­dents bang­ing on our doors say­ing, ‘ We’re in love! We’re in love! Study us,’ ” Dr Mackey said.

Re­duc­ing pain

Jarred Younger (then a Stan­ford grad­u­ate stu­dent) and the team tested 15 sub­jects.

All were asked to bring in six pho­tos: three

WALL-E and his beloved EVE in the movie amount of phys­i­cal pain you feel is less than when you are not. of their beloved and three of a com­pa­ra­bly at­trac­tive per­son they knew.

The re­searchers heated the palms of the sub­jects’ left hands to a point that caused ei­ther a mod­er­ate or high de­gree of pain, at which point the sub­jects looked at a photo – ei­ther of their beloved or the at­trac­tive ac­quain­tance.

In a third round of ex­per­i­ments, the re­searchers tested the ef­fects of mere dis­trac­tion, which is known to re­duce pain, by hav­ing the sub­jects per­form mental tasks (such as think­ing of all the sports that don’t in­volve a ball) while their palms were heated.

When you are in love, the

The photo of the beloved and mental dis­trac­tion ap­peared to re­duce pain by about the same amount: 36-45% for mod­er­ate pain, and 12-13% for high pain. The photo of a pretty peer had no ef­fect.

But when the sci­en­tists re­did the ex­per­i­ment while scan­ning sub­jects’ brains with a func­tional MRI (mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing), they saw that the photo and the mental dis­trac­tion task ac­ti­vated very dif­fer­ent parts of the brain.

The dis­trac­tion task en­gaged the higher, think­ing parts of the brain.

A photo of the beloved, on the other hand, en­gaged the more prim­i­tive, “rep­til­ian” re­gions – re­ward cen­tres re­lated to urges and crav­ings that are also im­pli­cated in ad­dic­tions.

Learn­ing how to har­ness the power of a loved one could help re­lieve pain with­out drug-in­duced side ef­fects, or per­haps help peo­ple quit smok­ing, the sci­en­tists sug­gested.

“Will I be go­ing back to my pa­tients and pre­scrib­ing one pas­sion­ate love af­fair ev­ery six months?

“I don’t know if I’m go­ing there,” Dr Mackey said.

“But it tells us there’s a lot more to the ex­pe­ri­ence of pain than just the in­jury.”

Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los An­ge­les, Cen­tre for Neu­ro­vis­ceral Sci­ences and Women’s Health co-di­rec­tor Bruce Nal­i­boff said that the next step could be to sep­a­rate out how much, if any, of the pain re­duc­tion was re­lated to sex­ual de­sire.

“It’d be in­ter­est­ing to do an ex­per­i­ment with not just an ac­quain­tance, but some­one you feel close to, just not a sex­ual at­trac­tion,” said Nal­i­boff, who was not in­volved in the study.

That might in­clude bud­ding pla­tonic re­la­tion­ships.

Re­call­ing that first meet­ing of minds over drinks, Aron said: “Talk about novel, chal­leng­ing, ex­hil­a­rat­ing! That night, when we had our con­ver­sa­tion, if you heated my arm, I wouldn’t have felt any­thing.” – Los An­ge­les Times/McClatchy-Tribune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices

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