Each of the study participants brought a photograph of their deceased loved one and were shown this picture while undergoing brain scanning by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Next, they were scanned while looking at a photograph of a female stranger.
The authors looked for activity in the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain most commonly associated with reward and one that has also been shown to play a role in social attachment, such as sibling and maternal affiliation. They also examined activity in the pain network of the brain, including the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the insula, which has been implicated in both physical and social pain. They found that while both groups had activation in the pain network of the brain after viewing a picture of their loved one, only individuals with complicated grief showed significant nucleus accumbens activations.
Complicated grief can be debilitating, involving recurrent pangs of painful emotions, including intense yearning, longing and searching for the deceased, and a preoccupation with thoughts of the loved one. This syndrome has now been defined by an empirically derived set of criteria and is being considered for inclusion in the DSM-V, the psychiatric manual for diagnosing mental disorders.
O'Connor, who is a member of UCLA's Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, cautions that she is not suggesting that such reveries about the deceased are emotionally satisfying but rather that they may serve in some people as a type of craving for the reward response that may make adapting to the reality of the loss more difficult.
|Contact: Mark Wheeler|
University of California - Los Angeles