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Romantic Breakups Change a Woman's Brain

Why Some Women Suffer Longer After Romantic Relationships End
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WebMD Health News

Dec. 30, 2004 -- When a romantic relationship ends, the emotional backlash for women can trigger brain changes visible on MRI scans, new research shows.

This new window into women's grief sheds light on the connection between normal sadness, grief, and depression, writes lead researcher Arif Najib, MD, with the University of Tübingen Medical Center in Tübingen, Germany. His study appears in the latest issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Women generally suffer more emotionally following the breakup of a romantic relationship than men, notes Najib. But it's long been a question: Why does unresolved grief spiral into true clinical depression for some, yet others recover? Is grief purely a prelude to depression, or does it have a different quality that needs further research?

He writes that during depression, the brain may have a malfunctioning of the normal circuitry for handling sadness, separation, and grief.

However, grief is difficult to study because it does tend to wane as time passes, Najib writes. Other studies have tried to "reproduce" grief by asking volunteers to remember a painfully sad event. These have produced less-intense reactions because they use memories, not the real thing, he writes.

When Romantic Relationships End Badly

In this current study, Najib and colleagues chose 11 female volunteers who were in the throes of grief over a recent breakup of a romantic relationship. Many were having trouble getting it out of their minds -- a risk factor for major depression.

Najib's researchers looked at brain scans while grieving women focused on sad thoughts about their romantic relationship. Then they performed brain imaging scans while women had neutral thoughts of a different person they had known for an equally long time.

During the study, the women were still having difficulty getting the loss out of their minds, but most had resolved their depressive symptoms.

Women still grieving over the romantic relationship had the greatest brain changes, he reports. Although there was increased brain activity in many regions associated with sadness, they also had much less activity in the brain region associated with emotion, motivation, and attention - the amygdala.

A similar thing happens with anxiety disorders and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) -- there is less amygdala activity rather than more, he explains.

His findings regarding grieving after a breakup lay the groundwork for future studies of the connection between normal sadness, grief, and depression, he writes.

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