Research Finds Breakups Are Exactly Like Cocaine Withdrawal

Research Finds Breakups Are Exactly Like Cocaine Withdrawal
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Relationships are as addictive as drugs, reveals a new study — no wonder breakups hurt.

Breaking up is definitely hard to do, and researchers now know why that is.

It seems that love is comparable to a drug addiction: It activates the parts of the brain associated with motivation, reward, and addiction cravings, according to new research from Stony Brook University.


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Researchers were able to show a connection between romantic rejection and a cocaine craving via brain images. And they helped to pinpoint that romantic love is more about being in a powerful, goal-oriented state based on the success of the relationship, rather than feeling a specific emotion, Arthur Aron, professor of social and health psychology at Stony Brook and one of the study's researchers, told AOL Health.

You can't stop thinking about the other person

The research team, led by Helen Fisher, a research professor and member of the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies at Rutgers University, used functional magnetic resonance imaging to monitor the brain activity of 15 college-age individuals. The heterosexual men and women had recently been dumped by their significant others and reported that they were still in love with their former partner, spent hours thinking about that person and hoped that their partner would come back to them.

The authors of the study, which was published in the July issue of the Journal of Neurophysiology, showed participants a photograph of their former girlfriend or boyfriend and asked them to complete a math exercise. Then they showed the volunteers a picture of a familiar "neutral" individual.

The photos of participants' past partners stimulated several key areas of the brain, including:

  • The ventral tegmental area in the mid-brain, which controls motivation and reward and is known to play a role in romantic love
  • The nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex, which are linked to cravings and addiction (particularly the dopaminergic reward system seen in cocaine addiction)
  • The insular cortex and anterior cingulate
  • The brain areas associated with physical pain and suffering

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Science explains why feelings can be difficult to control

The researchers said that these brain images also explain why extreme emotions and behaviors can be hard to control and may lead to stalking, homicide, suicide or depression.

"Extreme behaviors are associated with any intense desire," Aron explained. "Research has found that people intensely in love often feel that if only the other person loved them in return, life would be perfect. Given what people will do for wealth or power ... it is not surprising when people feel such an important central desire to being thwarted, they will do extreme things."

The researchers also say that their findings support the idea that time is the best medicine, considering the part of the brain linked to attachment became less active over time when the participants saw their former partners' pictures.

Though this study shows that love really is like an addiction, researchers still question whether these biological effects occur in those who desire love in general or only intensely love-struck individuals. But the knowledge of this love addiction might help to advance the knowledge surrounding treatments for other addictions.

"The eventual practical implications [of this study] have to do with dealing with the often destructive obsession associated with romantic rejection and more generally the processes and brain systems involved in reward-seeking and addiction," Aron said.

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