Chronic Grief May Trigger Reward Centers
> 6/23/2008 4:06:53 PM

All of us will one day lose someone close to us, and we will all be saddened by the loss. While most people eventually move past their grief with the help of time and distance, there are some who cannot escape from the grieving pattern. This stagnant pattern, called Complicated Grief (CG), has recently been the subject of increasing research as it approaches inclusion in the DSM-V. A press release from UCLA highlights an important result of this research, published by Dr. Mary-Frances O'Connor last month in NeuroImage.

Dr. O’Conner looked for women who had lost a loved one to breast cancer, gathering a dozen CG and a dozen normal grief subjects. The subjects were asked to bring in a photo of their loved ones, and they looked at the picture while having their brains scanned. All of the scans showed an activation of areas of the brain associated with pain and sadness, such as the insula and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.

There was a crucial extra activation, though, in the subjects with CG. Their brains also showed activation in the nucleus accumbens, which is thought to strengthen social bonds and behaviors by reinforcing certain actions with rewarding feelings. This suggests that people with CG may be in some sense addicted to thinking about their loss, even though clinging to these memories is also painful and an obstacle to recovery.

Even if the interpretation of these findings is correct, it does not mean that those wallowing in grief are doing so because they consciously calculate the rewards. More likely, they fall back again and again into grief because it lures them in with immediate feelings of relief that ultimately cannot outweigh the long-term consequences of failing to move on. Perhaps the cycle can be broken with the help of brain-scans that warn mourners that they are receiving potentially maladaptive feedback.

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