Electrical brain stimulation can ease heartbreak, research shows

Breaking up, as the Neil Sedaka hit goes, is hard. The emotional pain of a romantic breakup can be so severe that it has its own clinical name: love trauma syndrome, or LTS.

But help may be available for those who want to mend a broken heart. New research shows that wearing a £400 headset for just a few minutes a day can alleviate the misery, negativity and depression that can come with a failed relationship.

In one study, 36 volunteers with love trauma syndrome wore the device that stimulates the brain with a mild electrical current.

The volunteers were divided into three groups, each wearing the transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) headsets for 20 minutes twice a day for five days.

In one group, the current was directed to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). In another case, it targeted the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC). In the third, the headset was turned off.

Both targeted regions are involved in voluntary emotion regulation. Previous neuroimaging studies suggest that there is a neuropsychological link between breakup experiences and bereavement, and that specific prefrontal regions are involved, the study said.

LTS can cause emotional problems, depression, anxiety, insomnia, mood swings, obsessive thoughts and an increased risk of suicide, as well as feelings of insecurity, helplessness and guilt.

The study, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Researchconcluded that for LTS symptoms, DLPFC stimulation was more efficient than VLPFC stimulation.

“Both the DLPFC and VLPFC protocols significantly reduced LTS symptoms and improved depressive state and anxiety after the intervention, compared with the sham group,” concluded researchers from the University of Zanjan in Iran and the University of Bielefeld in Germany. “The ameliorating effect of the DLPFC protocol on love trauma syndrome was significantly greater than that of the VLPFC protocol.”

A month after treatment stopped, the volunteers still felt better. The study authors said: “These promising results require replication in larger studies.”

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In recent years, techniques such as tDCS have been introduced into clinical research. Pilot studies in the NHS are reportedly testing similar headsets to see if they can help treat mild depression.

“Since negative emotions take over after an emotional relationship fails and emotional dysregulation occurs, emotion regulation is considered the most important treatment goal. Although effective treatment methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy exist, innovative and complementary treatment methods are valuable because these treatments do not work for all patients,” the study said.

“Given the relationship between love trauma and emotional regulation, which is associated with the activation of specific brain areas and networks, treatment approaches that target the brain areas involved may be promising.”