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The Placebo Effect Works on Broken Hearts: Study

Apr 25, 2017 01:17 PM EDT
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Ever wish there's an antidote for heartbreak? Scientists say a placebo can work just as well.

According to a report from the University of Colorado Boulder, even just believing in doing something to deal with a broken heart can actually affect the brain significantly. A group of scientists were able to observe the neorological and behavioral effects of a placebo on recently broken-hearted volunteers.

"Breaking up with a partner is one of the most emotionally negative experiences a person can have, and it can be an important trigger for developing psychological problems," first author and postdoctoral research associate Leonie Koban explained, adding that this type of social pain that increased the risk of developing depression the following year.

"In our study, we found a placebo can have quite strong effects on reducing the intensity of social pain," she said.

Although there has been countless of studies about the placebo effect on physical health and diseases, this is the first one that analyzed its impact on emotional pain, specifically on romantic experiences.

The 40 volunteers all experienced an "unwanted romantic breakup" in the past six months. The experiment included using the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), then subjecting them to different stimuli: a photo of their ex-partner, a photo of a good friend of the same gender, and physical pain in the form of a hot stimulus on the arm.

The people rated the levels of pain and at the same time, and the fMRI observed their brain activity.

To see whether the placebo effect can benefit the subjects, they were given a nasal spray. Half of them were told the spray was a "powerful analgesic effective in reducing emotional pain," while the other half were told it was just a saline solution.

Then, they were directed back inside the machine and exposed to the stimuli again. The placebo subjects reported feeling less physical pain and emotionally better.

Even more impressively, the brain actually had a different reaction upon seeing the picture of the ex: increased activity in the brain region known to modulate emotions and decreased activity in the region associated with rejection. There's also increased activity in the pareiaqueductal gray, which helps control levels of painkilling brain chemicals and feel-good neurotransmitters.

"The current view is that you have positive expectations and they influence activity in your prefrontal cortex, which in turn influences systems in your midbrain to generate neurochemical opioid or dopamine responses," senior author Tor Wager explained.

Wager concluded that simply doing something for yourself 

He concluded, "Just the fact that you are doing something for yourself and engaging in something that gives you hope may have an impact."

The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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