How Breaking Up Can Wreak Havoc on Whole-Brain Dynamics

Romantic breakups may disrupt spatiotemporal brain dynamics, a fMRI study finds.

Posted Jun 21, 2020

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Anyone who's ever gone through a traumatic breakup knows that breaking up is hard on your psychological well-being and feels like it throws your brain into a tailspin. Now, a new fMRI brain imaging study (Martinez et al., 2020) sheds light on different ways a romantic breakup may disrupt whole-brain dynamics. These findings were published online May 26 in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical.

For this neuroimaging study, researchers investigated how increased depressive symptoms after a stressful breakup may be correlated with whole-brain measures of metastability, integration, and hierarchy. "Measures of integration, spatial diversity, and temporal variability were calculated to characterize the dynamic spatiotemporal organization of resting-state whole-brain connectivity," the authors write.

The cohort for this study included 69 participants between the ages of 18-26 who had gone through a relationship breakup in the past six months. After assessing symptoms of depression and giving each participant a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scan, the researchers established that increased depressive symptoms after a relationship breakup are associated with reduced spatiotemporal brain dynamics.

"In this study, we set out to investigate the dynamical complexity of the brain at rest by applying the intrinsic ignition framework to a dataset of 69 participants with varying degrees of depressive symptoms following a relationship breakup," co-author Gustavo Deco explained in a news release. "We hypothesized that greater levels of self-reported depressive symptoms are associated with reduced global integration and reduced spatiotemporal variability in the functional organization of the brain."

Deco leads Universitat Pompeu Fabra's Center of Brain and Cognition and is Director of the Computational Neuroscience Group at UPF in Barcelona, Spain.

The fMRI results of the study suggest that the severity of depressive symptoms someone experiences after a breakup may be associated with more significant deficits in the spatiotemporal ability of the whole brain to work in concert to integrate and process a wide range of information over time.

The brain images from this study also suggest that reduced spatial diversity (i.e., hierarchy) and reduced temporal variability (i.e., metastability) after a breakup appear to be markers for the severity of someone's depressive symptoms after a stressful breakup. In general, a higher degree of depressive symptoms after a breakup was associated with less "global integration," which means that the brain (as a whole) had a reduced capacity to regulate and integrate incoming information from widely distributed brain regions.

Beyond providing novel insights into how relationship breakups can disrupt whole-brain dynamics, this study offers fresh clues about how the brain may respond to other stressful life events that increase depressive symptoms.

These recent findings (2020) warrant more research into how complex whole-brain dynamics associated with global integration may be potential risk markers for clinical depression in response to situational stress. "Our approach may provide new opportunities for understanding depressive symptoms in the general population, offering dimensionality across health and disease," the authors conclude.

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Sonsoles Alonso Martínez, Jan-Bernard C. Marsman, Morten L. Kringelback, Gustavo Deco, Gert J. ter Horsta. "Reduced Spatiotemporal Brain Dynamics Are Associated With Increased Depressive Symptoms After a Relationship Breakup." NeuroImage: Clinical (First published online: May 26, 2020) DOI: 10.1016/j.nicl.2020.102299

Louis-David Lord, Angus B. Stevner, Gustavo Deco, and Morten L. Kringelbach. "Understanding Principles of Integration and Segregation Using Whole-Brain Computational Connectomics: Implications for Neuropsychiatric Disorders." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A (First published: May 15, 2017) DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2016.0283