The Neurobiology of Grief
Abstract: Grieving can be thought of as a form of learning, the necessity of updating our brain’s predictions from presence of our loved one in myriad situations to their absence. Theoretical models of prolonged grief suggest that maladaptive motivational tendencies (e.g., perseverative proximity-seeking of the deceased; excessive avoidance of reminders) interfere with a person’s ability to adapt following their loved one’s death. We sought to identify correlates of prolonged grief based on the tendency to approach or avoid reminders of the loss and test the role of oxytocin in shaping behaviors. Older adults participated in a within-subject, double-blind, randomized study, with a counterbalanced intranasal oxytocin and placebo sessions. In a standardized Approach Avoid Task, participants viewed photos from each category: (1) deceased spouse, (2) living loved one, (3) stranger, (4) grief-related scenes (e.g., tombstone, casket) and (5) neutral scenes. Participants pushed or pulled a joystick based on photo frame color, and relative approach/avoidance bias to each stimulus category was computed using median response time. Millisecond differences in approach and avoidance behavior to photos of the deceased discriminate prolonged grief disorder and suggest a role for automatic processes of attention, which may contribute to difficulty with new learning after loss.