Neuroscience: it must be love on the brain

If you’re madly in love, I’d like to ask you to take a moment to consider what exactly is happening inside your brain. Love is a many-chemical thing, a complicated sensation triggered by a series of internal reactions. Words may fail you when trying to describe the feelings within but the physical characteristics are clear: dilated pupils, increased heart rate, sweating, loss of appetite. To quantify the condition of love and its effects on the brain, biochemical characteristics have been studied and identified in various studies.

Functional brain imaging (fMRI) research at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts US, took brain scans of 2500 university students before and after they were shown a picture of a close one. The mere mental image of their loved one lead to an increase in Dopamine neurotransmitter production in the caudate nucleus and ventral segmental regions of the brain, our reward and pleasure centres.

Dopamine release elicits a feeling of euphoria, coupled with the rising levels of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and oxytocin. Studies carried out on prairie voles demonstrate a clear link between this hormone and monogamous behaviours. Oxytocin-low prairie voles have no interest in anything more serious than a one night stand because oxytocin levels strengthen social bonds.

Reduced serotonin levels account for the anxiety associated with a new romance similarity to its modulation in Obsessive compulsive disorder, coupled with the release of a stress hormone, Cortisol, which is to blame for the physical and emotional responses experienced as you become increasingly “obsessed” with your partner. The “blindness” of love can be explained by this overwhelming fixation to someone during the first stages of love.

When it all falls apart and we are denied of this love, we seek other ways to get our high. Studies with fruit flies show they don’t deal with romantic rejection particularly well, and drown their sorrows in alcohol when they are sex-deprived.

Researchers have drawn links between the highs and lows of love and the effects of drug use. Both substance addiction and romantic love rely on D2 receptors being activated by Dopamine, reinforcing the reward and making you anticipating the next fix. Continuous exposure to your significant other results in a neural adaptation where your nervous system essentially becomes desensitized and begins to develop a tolerance. A transition from attraction to attachment ensues, providing an overall sense of security and comfort around a partner. A subsequent lack of your drug/person of choice will send you into withdrawal. The rush of pleasure and contentment is followed by pain, grief, and depression when the reward is taken away abruptly.

Love is not an official medical disorder and its likeness to addiction is not as clear cut and simplified as often portrayed. Nonetheless, a brain in love and a brain on drugs will exhibit comparable physical and psychological symptoms. Some would argue that the addiction to love is natural rather than dysfunctional, our instincts crave attachment for survival and for romantic connection. Others might say you are better off with a happily single brain than with an oxytocin driven obsessed cocaine one. Is falling love ultimately up to us to chose, or is out of our hands and only for our brains to decide?

Nick Manesis

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