Recent study suggests love is a painkiller

Oct. 14, 2010, 2:04 a.m.

Your blossoming relationship may be providing more than just an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on. It may actually be relieving your pain. A recent study at the School of Medicine suggests that love may alleviate pain in the same way narcotic painkillers do.

Sean Mackey, associate professor of anesthesia, Jarred Younger, a professor of anesthesia, and Arthur Aron, a professor of psychology at SUNY Stony Brook, collaborated on a study investigating the pain-relieving capabilities of love that was published Wednesday online in PLoS ONE.

Subjects in the early stages of a romance–nine months or fewer into a relationship–were shown pictures one at a time of their significant other or of a platonic friend while receiving pain in the form of either intense blasts of heat to the hand. As comparison, the study also measured pain relief that subjects felt when they were given a word-distraction test while experiencing pain.

The subjects were then asked to rate their pain levels, at which point the experimenters could compare those results to the neurological changes they observed.

Happy couple Tim Gurshin '14 and Laura Figueroa '14 embrace. A new School of Medicine study suggests love may alter the experience of pain in a similar way that painkillers do. ALEX SIMON/The Stanford Daily

“The centers that were being activated that were responsible for the pain relief were definitely general reward centers,” Younger said. “These regions are also the ones activated by drugs of abuse, sex, eating really good food–anything that your body wants you to keep doing.”

Younger said the reward sensation feeds into pain-suppressing centers that can block pain signals from reaching the brain, a process known as analgesia. Since love is an experience of reward, it could in fact have analgesic effects.

“[Art] and his wife study passionate love and I study pain,” Mackey said in describing how the study got started. “We got to talking about the brain systems of love and the brain systems of pain and realized there was tremendous overlap.”

Mackey then offered Younger, a post-doctoral student at the time, the opportunity to join the study and assist the love-pain experiment.

“I think we picked love because it’s one of the strongest naturally occurring reward experiences that we can actually emulate in the scanner,” Younger said.

Furthermore, Younger expressed hope that harnessing the activity of these brain regions could lead to the discovery of non-addictive methods of controlling pain.

“One of the possibilities is that now that we see some of the regions associated with love that reduce pain significantly, we may be able to teach that person how to control their activity in that region,” Younger said.

Younger conceded, however, that it may be difficult to determine how specifically to induce love and thus reduce pain.

“We can’t ask them to have an affair or anything,” Younger said, “but it could be that anything rewarding could reduce pain.”

Still, Younger maintained that love is among the strongest of the reward sensations, and thus among the most effective pain relievers. The specific type of love most valuable as a painkiller would be a matter of further study.

“I would like to look at maternal love, long-term romantic love, and test different types of love to see if they’re also pain-relieving or not,” Younger said.

Mackey expressed an interest in pursuing the matter of quantification of pain relief with respect to degree of love.

“Does more love equal more pain relief, more analgesia?” Mackey questioned.

Both Mackey and Younger expressed hope that further exploration of the interactions between love and pain relief could lead to more innocuous methods of pain relief.

Contact Brandon Powell at [email protected]

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