(Un)happy brains: Research shows how opioids help to cope with romantic breakups

Reuters / Brian Snyder
Apparently, moving on from a tough breakup isn’t as easy for some people as for others. According to new research, it has to do with their brains releasing less of the stress-reducing natural opioids than others.

Bad breakups and reaction to them in the two types of people proved to be instrumental to thestudyof the opioid system in the brain.

“Social stressors are important factors that precipitate or worsen illnesses such as depression, anxiety and other neuropsychiatric conditions. This study examined mechanisms that are involved in the suppression of those stress responses,” senior author at the University of Michigan, Dr. Jon-Kar Zubieta says.

To arrive at their conclusion, researchers scanned participants’ brains with positron emission tomography (PET) while simulating an online dating situation.

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Before getting a brain scan, 17 depressed and 18 non-depressed (but otherwise similar) individuals viewed social profiles and photos belonging to hundreds of their potential romantic peers. Each picked the ones they liked most.

All the scientists had to do then was to tell each participant that the person they were into was not interested in them.

The findings, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, illustrated differences in depressed versus non-depressed people and go a long way to understanding the brain’s response to pain.

The only upside, according to the scientists, is that when depressed people feel liked by someone, it’s a more intense feeling than when regular people experience the same situation. Sadly, though, the initial joy is short-lived, so non-depressed people have it best after all.

In spite of that, researchers were surprised that there was ability for a strong positive response in the depressives, as it has been thought that any and all feelings experienced by a depressed brain should be more dulled.

Also, unlike in other similar research, participants were actually told the profiles weren’t real. But that did not impact the scans.

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But the research will also prove useful in finding new ways to boost the brain’s opioid-producing response in depressed people, as well as reach a new understanding of how to decrease negative feelings brought on by social stress and promote social interaction.

The research also builds on the foundations of prior, similar work with non-depressed subjects.

“Our findings suggest that a depressed person’s ability to regulate emotions during these interactions is compromised, potentially because of an altered opioid system. This may be one reason for depression’s tendency to linger or return, especially in a negative social environment,” lead author Dr. David Hsu, now at Stony Brook university, says.

According to Hsu, the brain’s opioid system can both magnify the sadness in rejection and help sustain better feelings after a positive social interaction has finished taking place.

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This ties in with older research into the mu-opioid system in the brain, which is intimately tied to physical pain, hence the opioids’ ability to also control that.

The researchers are already thinking of further progress along these established lines. “To help us understand who is most affected by social stressors, we’re planning to investigate the influence of genes, personality, and the environment on the brain’s ability to release opioids during rejection and acceptance,” Hsu says.

All the participants were enrolled in a subsequent study on the treatment of opioid-related conditions. The team said this would help them identify more accurate sub-types of depression in future.