Brain Babble

Unraveling neuroscience research and FAQs—without the jargon

Your Love is My Drug

Long-term love and the brain's "pleasure center"

For our first Valentine's Day, my boy had gotten me chocolate brains! Not only does he know me extremely well, but he also had it right—love originates in the brain, not the heart.

But what exactly is going on between the ears when those warm and fuzzy feeling wash over us? A study published earlier this year revealed that love actually acts like an addictive drug. Hmmm, it seems that Ke$ha also got it right...

Researchers at Stony Brook University in New York examined the neural correlates of intense, long-term love using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in 10 women and seven men. fMRI measures brain activity as a function of changes in blood flow. The participants, married an average of 21 years, underwent imaging while viewing either an image of their partner's face, or a familiar acquaintance.

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Compared to viewing the acquaintance, areas specifically activated when viewing their spouse included:

• Regions of the dopamine-rich reward system, including the ventral tegmental area (VTA), dorsal striatum, and basal ganglia—areas that, interestingly, are implicated in early-stage passionate love. This "pleasure center," lead researcher Lucy Brown explains, "helps us recognize when something feels good."

• Regions implicated in maternal attachment, including: globus pallidus (GP), substantia nigra (SN), Raphe nucleus, thalamus, and insula.

Co-author Arthur Aron notes, "Intense passionate love uses the same system in the brain that gets activated when a person is addicted to drugs."

Adds Brown, "You can feel happy in love, but you can also feel anxious. The other person becomes a goal in life." A craving, an obsession. A feel-good sensation. Sounds like drug-taking behavior to me!

Love is perhaps one of the strongest of the human emotions, and we have long-known that animals' brains are wired to choose a mate, perhaps going to extremes for attention and affection. Whether you sparkle like Edward Cullen or prefer the John Cusack boombox approach, do whatever it takes to let yourself be known—they'll be addicted before you know it.

And if you don't have a significant other, chocolate is a perfectly appropriate and chemically-similar substitute!

Acevedo BP, Aron A, Fisher HE, & Brown LL (2012). Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 7 (2), 145-59 PMID: 21208991

Jordan Gaines Lewis is a science writer and Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Penn State College of Medicine.
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