Women who are distraught after breaking up with a romantic partner show brain changes that are not seen in women less upset by a romantic rift, researchers report.
Specifically, women who said they were particularly upset about the breakup showed greater decreases in brain activity in brain regions associated with emotion, motivation and attention while thinking sad thoughts about their former partners. Emotion, motivation and attention are “all factors that go awry in depression and now, it appears grief as well,” Dr. Jeffrey P. Lorberbaum told Reuters Health. “We speculate that brain regions involved in emotion, motivation and attention regions are impaired with severe grief,” said Lorberbaum, at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. These findings may provide clues to how the brain processes extreme sadness, and how that sadness can sometimes lead to depression, he added. “If we can first understand the brain basis of grief then we eventually might be able to help those who are disabled by grief, as well as understand how depression gets triggered.” In the American Journal of Psychiatry, Lorberbaum and his colleagues suggest that depression may sometimes occur when the brain becomes unable to properly handle sadness, separation or grief. To investigate further how the brain responds to grief, the investigators performed brain scans on nine women dealing with feelings surrounding a breakup that occurred within the previous 4 months, involving a romantic relationship that lasted at least 6 months. All of the participants were having trouble getting over the relationship, the authors note — perhaps feeling as if they can’t get the person out of their head, or still feeling sad. During the study, the researchers noted women’s brain activity when they thought sad thoughts about their former partner and compared it to the activity seen when they thought neutral thoughts about a person they had known for the same amount of time. Immediately after the breakup, all women said they had experienced some symptoms of depression, although most added that the symptoms had started to fade after 2 weeks. At the time of the study, only one person was suffering full-blown depression. Lorberbaum and his colleagues found that women who were grieving the most from the breakup showed the greatest decreases in brain activity in brain regions associated with emotion, motivation and attention while thinking sad thoughts about the ex-partner. Additional research is needed to shed light on how normal sadness, grief and depression are related, the authors note. (Source: American Journal of Psychiatry: Reuters Health: Alison McCook: December 2004.)