Placebo effect can help heal a broken heart, CU Boulder study suggests

Posted at 3:55 PM, Apr 24, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-24 19:46:59-04

BOULDER, Colo. – The pain of a broken heart is similar to physical pain, but getting over a breakup could be as simple as believing, according to a new study by CU Boulder neuroscientists.

The study looked specifically at the effect of placebos – fake treatments that don’t actually include any sort of medication. Previous research has shown them to be effective in treating a wide array of ailments, including physical pain. This study from CU Boulder lends credence to the idea that they can help with emotional pain as well.

Researchers asked 40 volunteers who had recently been dumped to bring a photo of their ex and a photo of a friend to CU Boulder’s brain imaging lab. The scientists then had the volunteers look at the photos and recall their breakup while inside an fMRI machine. The participants were also subjected to pain on their arm.

The volunteers’ brain scans showed that similar brain regions lit up during both physical and emotional pain.

To study the effect of a placebo on both types of pain, the researchers gave each volunteer a dose of saline nose spray but told half of the group that it was a powerful painkiller. Then the participants went back into the fMRI machine.

The volunteers who thought they were getting pain medication not only felt less physical and emotional pain, but their brains also showed increased activity in an area that’s responsible for regulation emotions and decreased activity in areas associated with the pain of rejection.

"What we're finding is just that positive engagement and positive expectation really can be effective in terms of changing your brain physiology and brain chemistry as well," said Professor Tor Wager, the study's senior author.

The researchers say their work shows that simply taking some kind of action that you believe will help can ease the pain of a breakup.

“Just the fact that you are doing something for yourself and engaging in something that gives you hope may have an impact," Wager said. "Maybe they help you find the silver lining."

You can read the study in its entirety in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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