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Romantic Love: Nature's Painkiller?
Date:10/14/2010

e them," Mackey explained.

The pain relief afforded by looking at the picture of the beloved seemed specific to that act -- when participants were asked to look at a picture of an equally attractive and familiar acquaintance, their pain levels did not recede.

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. "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.

"This doesn't require you to be an undergraduate at a university to fall head-over-heels in love," he said. "Even older people can do that."

Nor would someone have to be in the initial throes of a love affair to benefit from love's soothing effect.

"This gave me a greater appreciation that, for a patient in chronic pain, being in a loving relationship may actually provide some analgesic benefit," Mackey said.

Still, love can be an elusive prospect for many. Dr. Joe Contreras, chair of pain and palliative care at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, believes that distraction might be more a more accessible (but often ignored) pain remedy.

Finding ways to distract yourself is "definitely something that is unfortunately underutilized, I believe, because our [medical] system does not incentivize it and insurance companies don't pay for it," he said.

And Anna Ratka, professor and chair of pharmaceutical sciences at Texas A&M Health Science Center's Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy in Kingsville, inserted a
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