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Adolescents Are Prone to Love Addiction

Falling in love is physiologically similar to being on cocaine.

By Amy Broadway, researcher at the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research

Adolescence spans from roughly age 12 to as late as 25, with the late teens and early twenties sometimes called "emerging adulthood." During this important and exciting phase of life, individuals transition from being children to being adults. Specific aspects of physical, social, and personality maturation affect the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of adolescents. The adolescent brain makes young people susceptible to love addiction. By "love," I mean the physiological and psychological experience associated with one’s judgment that she has “fallen in love.” I mean the thrilling, intoxicating stage of new love.

Adolescent brains are in an important stage of maturation in which the cerebral cortex prunes unnecessary neurons and synapses. With this necessary growth comes risks. Young people are vulnerable to developing addictions. While their cognitive control is still developing, their drive for novelty and reward is heightened.

In Berit Brogaard’s book On Romantic Love, she explains how the physiological experience of falling in love is similar to that of getting high on cocaine. If adolescents are vulnerable to substance addiction and falling in love physiologically resembles being on an addictive drug, then adolescents are vulnerable to becoming addicted to love.

The Adolescent Cerebral Cortex and Striatum

An infant’s brain overproduces neurons and connecting synapses. At the age of 2 or 3, the brain starts pruning unneeded neurons and synapses. Generally, when a person reaches age 5 or 6, her brain structure is about 99 percent complete. Right before puberty, more neurons and synapses start to grow. Then the tween brain begins an important period of maturation when it prunes again. While an adolescent can physically appear as mature as an adult, her brain’s cerebral cortex is still structuring parts associated with abilities most adults already have.

During this phase of restructuring, adolescents have a more reactive striatum which increases their drive for novelty and reward. Confirming cognitive functions based on brain structure is complicated. However, it’s reasonable to assume there is a connection between brain structure and cognitive functions. By examining brain development neuroscientists can better gain a map of adolescent cognition.

The cerebral cortex, the gray, outer layer of the brain is associated with higher reasoning, whereas the subcortical regions are associated with basic drives. The cerebral cortex does not fully mature until as late as age 25. Developmental psychologists previously assumed the brain was fully formed by childhood.

The cerebral cortex receives and processes information from the senses, executes voluntary movement, transmits information to subcortical parts of the brain, and associates abstract concepts into a meaningful experience of the world. Parts of the prefrontal cortex, the front lobes of the cerebral cortex, develop at varying rates. The parts associated with cognitive control, including planning ahead, controlling impulses, and regulating emotions are last to mature.

As the cerebral cortex restructures itself, parts of the subcortical brain are affected. A subcortical part of the forebrain, the striatum sits below the prefrontal cortex. It coordinates motivation with body movement. It is also responsible for finding novel and rewarding cues in the environment. In adolescents, the striatum is more reactive than in adults, making adolescents more excited by novelty and feelings of reward. This may be nature’s way of forcing adolescents to leave the nest and create lives on their own. The transitional prefrontal cortex (cognitive control) combined with an intensified striatum (novelty and reward) makes adolescents more likely to take risks and seek reward.

Adolescents Are Vulnerable to Addiction

Cognitive control, associated with the prefrontal cortex, is responsible for resisting temptations in favor of long-term goals. For an adolescent, that might mean resisting hanging out with a cute boy in favor of doing her homework. While the prefrontal cortex develops, a teen’s cognitive control is challenged by competing appetitive cues of the subcortical brain. (Casey, Jones, 2010) Though adults vary in cognitive control, research shows adolescents are particularly vulnerable to stopping goal-directed behavior to seek something more immediately gratifying, whether that be a glass of beer, a sexual encounter, or dissociative fantasies about a potential lover.

People have known for a long time that adolescents are prone to risky behavior and experimentation with addictive substances. Recent research has found neurobiological reasons why. In a study comparing responses of adolescent and adult rats to rewards, researchers found adolescent rats show increased activation in the ventral striatum, a part of the striatum. The ventral striatum is part of what neuroscientists call the reward circuitry, a collection of neural structures involved in reinforcement. The ventral striatum affects how excited or favorable a person feels for a reward. And it affects how willing she is to take risks to attain the reward. Since adolescent brains are more excited by possible rewards and are also still developing cognitive control, they are vulnerable to developing addictive behaviors.

Addictive substances, such as cocaine or alcohol, are known to have reinforcing properties, which is why they are addictive. These substances affect the transmission of dopamine, a neurotransmitter sometimes called a "pleasure chemical." Dopamine is essential to the reward circuitry. Found in the striatum, dopamine motivates people to continue certain behaviors by causing a feeling of intense enjoyment with activity. For adolescents, the use of addictive substances can intensify an already more active ventral striatum. (Casey, Jones, 2010) If adolescents are prone to addiction to dopamine-increasing substances, they may also be attracted to experiences that increased dopamine, such as exercising, playing video games, or falling in love.

The Physiological Experience of Love Is Like Cocaine

In chapter two of On Romantic Love, “The Chemistry of Love,” Brogaard explains the chemical profile of falling in love. When a person falls in love, her amygdala is hyperstimulated. The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system and is associated with memory, making decisions, and processing emotions. When someone falls in love, an intense firing of neurons in the amygdala triggers a surge of hormones and neurotransmitters for adapting to stress.

Unpredictability, mystery and sexual attraction make the amygdala go into hyperactivation. Via neurotransmitters, this signals to the adrenal glands that something exciting, scary, mysterious and unpredictable is going on. This, in turn, results in the adrenal glands pumping a surge of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. Via the bloodstream, adrenaline increases heart and breathing rates, noradrenaline produces body heat, making you sweat, and cortisol provides extra energy for muscles to use. (Brogaard, 2015)

Love Causes Stress and Feelings of Pleasure

If someone falls in love and believes her love may be requited, parts of her brain take on the chemistry of a brain on cocaine. Like common antidepressants, cocaine is a reuptake inhibitor for pleasure-causing neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Unlike antidepressants, cocaine works instantly. It completely blocks neurotransporters, which normally mediate the removal of neurotransmitters from the synaptic cleft between neurons. When neurotransporters are blocked, serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine flood the synaptic cleft resulting in physiological ecstasy. Norepinephrine increases energy. Serotonin creates a feeling of satiation and self-confidence. Intense feelings of romantic love activate the striatum, the dopamine-releasing region which is more reactive in adolescents. Dopamine creates a feeling of joy and reinforces behaviors that trigger it. Even when love is not pathological but just novel, the brain experiences it as if high on cocaine. New love provides instant feel-good brain chemicals, making it attractive to those who want to feel good instantly.

People in love may experience characteristics of addiction. One of these is withdrawal. When a person is alienated by her beloved or her feelings of new love fade, the source of intense feel-good chemicals is gone. Like withdrawal from addictive substances, love withdrawal causes dopamine, serotonin, and epinephrine to plummet all at once. The neurotransmitters can sometimes decrease to lower levels than the person’s baseline. This decrease causes negative moods and physical exhaustion. In some cases, people may quickly find another love interest, becoming addicted to “the chase” or the prospect of love. In other cases, an individual may go through a healthy period of grief. At a harmful level, a person may have despair, obsession, and even suicidal thoughts.

Adolescents Are Vulnerable to Love Addiction

As we have seen, adolescents are at risk for substance addiction due to an increased drive for novelty and feelings of reward. The feeling of falling in love is physiologically similar to being high on cocaine and can be addictive. Love triggers fluctuations in neurotransmitters. In particular, it increases dopamine, which acts with the ventral striatum to reinforce behavior. In adolescents, the ventral striatum is extra reactive while the prefrontal cortex continues to develop. It’s not surprising that adolescents are at risk for love addiction.


Brogaard, Berit. On Romantic Love, Oxford University Press, 2015.

Casey, BJ; Jones, Rebecca M. (2010). “Neurobiology of the Adolescent Brain and Behavior: Implications for Substance,” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry; 49(12):1189–1285:;jsessionid=grLqaVGwT7….

Feldman, Robert S. (2010). Child Development, (6th Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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