Death + Biology Grief + Mourning

Addicted to Loss

After a Death, the Pain That Doesn’t Go Away
Fran Schumer, New York Times (September 28, 2009)

Craving Love? Enduring Grief Activates Brain’s Reward Center
Mary-Frances O’Connor, et al., NeuroImage 42 (2008) 969–972.

As the New York Times reports, more than a million people per year suffer an “extreme form of grieving” following the death of a loved one — an anguishing bereavement that lasts more than six months after a death. The condition, known as complicated grief or prolonged grief disorder, has spurred its own methods of therapy and is under consideration for inclusion in the DSM-V, the standard for diagnosing mental disorders, due out in 2012.

Schumer also summarizes a 2008 study in the journal NeuroImage (linked above), which looked at the brain activity of people suffering from complicated grief:

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, Mary-Frances O’Connor, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, showed that when patients with complicated grief looked at pictures of their loved ones, the nucleus accumbens — the part of the brain associated with rewards or longing — lighted up. It showed significantly less activity in people who experienced more normal patterns of grieving. …

The nucleus accumbens is associated with other kinds of longing — for alcohol and drugs — and is more dense in the neurotransmitter dopamine than in serotonin. That raises two interesting questions: Could memories of a loved one have addictive qualities in some people? And might there be a more effective treatment for this kind of suffering than the usual antidepressants, whose target is serotonin?

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