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Scientists Find Chemical In The Brain Linked To Grief

October 15, 2008

Scientists said on Wednesday they have pinpointed a key brain chemical involved in dealing with the sudden loss or long-term separation of a partner.

Oliver Bosch of the University of Regensburg in Germany and his colleagues said such a finding could lead to potential treatments for people suffering severe depression-like symptoms after losing a partner.

The study was carried out with a type of rodent called a prairie vole.

The team studied prairie voles because, unlike 95 percent of all mammals, the furry creatures form long-lasting bonds with their mates.

“Here we have a change in the activity in a part of the brain linked to behaviors such as anxiety and depression,” Bosch said. “This could mimic what you find in humans after an unplanned separation or loss.”

Previous studies have linked losing a partner to increased risk of depression and disease but Bosch and colleagues wanted to find a biological explanation for why this happens.

The researchers separated groups of voles from either their mates or siblings and left the remaining ones together to gauge the response of the animals.

The researchers reported in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology that higher anxiety levels were noted in the separated voles, but only ones that had lost a mate exhibited signs of depression.

A brain chemical known as “corticotropin releasing factor,” a neurotransmitter involved in the stress response, was elevated in all the voles, which had bonded with a partner.

Bosch added that voles given a compound which blocks the chemical from signaling in the brain showed no evidence of these symptoms, suggesting that drugs could do the same in people struggling to overcome the loss of somebody close.

He said it might be possible to potentially ease this bereavement and in the future use these blockers to treat patients that are really suffering from losing a partner.

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