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Love: The natural painkiller

New research suggests that falling in love has remarkable effects on the brain — such as muting pain impulses. But beware: Like morphine, it can be addictive

When Huey Lewis sang about the power of love, he said it was a curious thing. He didn't know how right he was. New research suggests that feelings of romantic love can actually mute the intensity of physical pain. Can you really replace your Advil with a dose of love? 

How did scientists come to this conclusion?
The study was carried out by researchers at Stanford University, who tested 15 undergraduates in the "early phases of passionate love." Each of the participants were asked to bring a photo of their loved one, and another photo of a friend with whom they did not share a romantic bond. They were then asked to hold a stimulator that would get hot enough to cause them pain. A scanner examined what was going on in their brain as they examined each of the photos, and carry out a mental task, as the stimulator got hotter and hotter.

What did the scanners find?
It found that both the mental distraction and examining the picture of a loved one allowed each subject to withstand greater pain than looking at the other photo. Both reduced the sensation of "moderate pain" by up to 45 percent, and "high pain" by up to 13 percent. But while working out a mental problem merely distracted the brain, the sensation of love activated "primitive, 'reptilian' regions" of the brain — the same regions that cause us to become addicted to drugs, for example. 

So love is like cocaine?
Yes, in that it provokes a similar chemical reaction inside your head. Another recent study suggests that feelings of love are stimulated by dopamine — the same chemical that is associated with drug-induced euphoria. "You might as well face it," says Elizabeth Landau at CNN. "You're addicted to love."

Then why bother with morphine, if all you need is love?
Unfortunately, love cannot be administered like a drug. But harnessing the power of love could help save someone's life, say the scientists — relieving the pain of a chronic illness or even the pain of giving up smoking. Even so, the study's authors aren't drawing cartoon hearts on prescription forms just yet. "Will I be going back to my patients and prescribing one passionate love affair every six months?" says Stanford's Dr. Sean Mackey. "I don't know if I'm going there."

Sources: Los Angeles Times, CNN, Time

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