Complicated grief, or persistent complex bereavement disorder, is a condition that affects approximately 10% of bereaved individuals and is marked by intense longing and yearning for the deceased. Little is known about the neurocognitive mechanisms contributing to this syndrome, but previous research suggests that reward pathways in the brain may play a role. Twenty-five older adults were categorized based on grief severity into one of three groups: complicated grief (CG), non-complicated grief (NCG) and non-bereaved married controls (NB). Neural activation was examined using fMRI while participants viewed a countdown on the screen (anticipation) followed by a photo of their (living or deceased) spouse. There was no significantly differential activation between the three groups for the spouse v. stranger photo contrast, nor for anticipation period v. spouse photo. Post-hoc analyses were conducted using self-reported yearning scores as a regressor across all bereaved participants, which revealed that greater symptoms of yearning predicted greater activation in the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC). Given the small sample size, the results should be considered preliminary and in need of replication, but may suggest a more nuanced, transdiagnostic role of the sgACC. This region of the brain has been previously linked to depression and suggests that symptoms of yearning may present an opportune place to intervene to improve outcomes in CG.
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