Brain Awakenings

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Neuroscience Tips to enhance your Valentine’s Day

Tantalizing new evidence on the link between exercise and love

Hello my friends and happy February! It’s the month of dark chocolate bon bons, bubbly champagne and of course, the perfect Valentine’s Day. While everyone would agree that chocolates and champagne are essential components to the perfect Valentine’s Day date, few realize how important your brain chemicals are to ensure maximum sizzle on this special day.

The brain chemical that most neuroscientists have focused on in the area of love and romance is oxytocin. To understand the role of oxytocin in L-O-V-E, neuroscientists have studied the prairie vole, an adorable little hamster-like creature that lives in the wide open prairies of the Midwest and forms life-long, monogamous ‘pair bonds.’ I’m talkin’ life-long Ryan Gosling-Rachel McAdams kind of love from the “The Notebook”…that kind of love. One of the most striking features of prairie vole behavior is how the initial pair bond first forms. Essentially, the first time a young female vole (let’s call her Rachel) sniffs an unrelated male (let’s call him Ryan) it immediately triggers her to go into heat that then leads to 30 to 40 hours of continuous mating. Yes, you read that correctly, 30 to 40 hours.

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Impressive.

It turns out that oxytocin is a key brain chemical essential for the formation of the life-long pair bond that develops during this marathon mating session. If you block the action of oxytocin in the female brain no pair bond is formed. But recent research suggests a way to enhance the Rachel-Ryan pair bond. In 2012, Kenkel and colleagues reported at the Society for Neuroscience Meeting in New Orleans that male prairie voles put on a 6 week voluntary exercise regime enhanced their pair bonding behavior relative to males that did not exercise. These scientists hypothesized that increased oxytocin as a result of exercise led to the enhanced bonding behavior.

So the million dollar Valentine’s Day question is, if I get my sweetie to take a nice long jog to get his/her oxytocin flowing, will it act like a magical “The Notebook-like” love potion for me? I hate to burst the Champaign bubbles, but the jury is still out on that one. For example, there is some evidence that oxytocin increases with exercise in humans, but it seems that very high levels of exercise “to exhaustion” are needed. There is also intriguing evidence that oxytocin given in nasal spray form in humans enhances feelings of empathy, trust and generosity. Not exactly a human ‘love potion #9’, but maybe we just need to find a way to get more of it into the brain or to different parts of the brain. The bottom line is that oxytocin still has potential as a human love potion, but more studies are needed.

But what if you are in need of a neurochemical love potion for THIS Valentine’s Day 2013? Are there any other candidates that can help us out? The answer is yes. And the brain chemical is testosterone, that quintessential male hormone which is also produced (in smaller amounts) in females as well. It is well known that in males, testosterone enhances both libido and sex drive. There is some evidence that it can play the same role in females as well. In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Okamoto and colleagues showed that testosterone in the brain is enhanced with just moderate amounts of exercise in male rats.

But it turns out that a vigorous walk is not the only thing that can get the testosterone flowing. A different study published in 2010 by Carney, Cuttey and Yap from Harvard showed that just 2 minutes of “posing” in powerful, expansive body positions can increase testosterone levels in both males and females. The power posing resulted in enhanced feelings of power and increased tolerance for risk—possibly useful for all those romantic situations on the horizon.

What does this suggest for your Valentine’s Day date preparations? It suggests a lively game of co-ed soccer or maybe touch football with your sweetie to get the blood pumping might be a great start. If team “Love Birds” can allow ample time for some healthy trash talking with appropriate power poses to intimidate the other team, then you two should be all set for a smokin’ hot Valentine’s day.

Who knew neuroscience could provide such practical information!?

Please leave a post telling me about your experience with exercise and romance. And Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D., studies how our brain forms new long-term memories as well as the effects of aerobic exercise on our learning, memory, and cognitive functions.

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