"These pain-relieving systems are linked to reward systems," said Dr.Sean Mackey, senior author of a paper appearing online Oct. "Love engages these deep brain systems that are involved with reward and craving and similar systems involved in addiction.As a control, participants were asked to name every sport that doesn't involve a ball, a form of distraction, while also activating the probe."To our pleasant surprise, both love and distraction reduce pain to an equal amount and that was good because it more fully allowed us to compare them," Mackey explained."This gives us some insight into potential ways of further probing and ultimately translating that into treatment for pain," added Mackey, who is chief of the pain management division at Stanford University School of Medicine.The authors recruited 15 Stanford undergrads who were "wildly, recklessly in love," said Mackey, adding that the recruitment process took "only days." "It was the easiest study I've ever recruited for," he said.Love's painkilling effect isn't just that the person is distracted by thoughts of the loved one — although that works, too.
Functional MRI imaging of the participants' brain also revealed that, "the brain systems involved in distraction are entirely different from those involved in love," Mackey said."Within hours they were all banging on my door, 'Study us! ' When you're in that kind of love, you want the world to know about it." The besotted seven men and eight women, who were still in the newly smitten phase of their relationships, came to the study with a picture of their beloved.Researchers flashed the picture of the beloved while inflicting pain with a handheld thermal probe."This doesn't require you to be an undergraduate at a university to fall head-over-heels in love," he said.
"In distraction, there was a much higher level of the newer corticol systems involved with classic attention and distraction." On the other hand, "in love, very primitive, reptilian brain systems that are classically involved with the reward systems that motivate our basic drives were involved," he said.
Although the students in this study were at an age when love is often in the air, Mackey believes the results would easily translate to older folks.