|cbsnews.com, 11-02-2009. AP
Love Comes From Head, Not Heart
Like any young woman in love, Bianca Acevedo has exchanged valentine hearts
with her fiance.
But the New York neuroscientist knows better. The source of love is in the head,
not the heart.
She is one of the researchers in a relatively new field focused on explaining
the biology of romantic love. And the unpoetic explanation is that love mostly
can be understood through brain images, hormones and genetics.
That seems to be the case for the newly in love, the long in love and the
"It has a biological basis. We know some of the key players," said Larry Young
of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta.
There, he studies the brains of an unusual monogamous rodent to get a better
clue about what goes on in the minds of people in love.
In humans, there are four tiny areas of the brain that some researchers say form
a circuit of love. Acevedo, who works at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine
in New York, is part of a team that has isolated those regions with the
unromantic names of ventral tegmental area (VTA), the nucleus accumbens, the
ventral pallidum and raphe nucleus.
The hot spot is the teardrop-shaped VTA. When people newly in love were put in a
functional magnetic resonance imaging machine and shown pictures of their
beloved, the VTA lit up. Same for people still madly in love after 20 years.
The VTA is part of a key reward system in the brain.
"These are cells that make dopamine and send it to different brain regions,"
said Helen Fisher, a researcher and professor at Rutgers University. "This part
of the system becomes activated because you're trying to win life's greatest
prize - a mating partner."
One of the research findings isn't so complimentary: Love works chemically in
the brain like a drug addiction.
"Romantic love is an addiction; a wonderful addiction when it is going well, a
horrible one when it is going poorly," Fisher said. "People kill for love. They
die for love."
The connection to addiction "sounds terrible," Acevedo acknowledged. "Love is
supposed to be something wonderful and grand, but it has its reasons. The reason
I think is to keep us together."
But sometimes love does not keep us together. So the scientists studied the
brains of the recently heartbroken and found additional activity in the nucleus
accumbens, which is even more strongly associated with addiction.
"The brokenhearted show more evidence of what I'll call craving," said Lucy
Brown, a neuroscientist also at Einstein medical college. "Similar to craving
the drug cocaine."
The team's most recent brain scans were aimed at people married about 20 years
who say they are still holding hands, lovey-dovey as newlyweds, a group that is
a minority of married people. In these men and women, two more areas of the
brain lit up, along with the VTA: the ventral pallidum and raphe nucleus.
The ventral pallidum is associated with attachment and hormones that decrease
stress; the raphe nucleus pumps out serotonin, which "gives you a sense of calm,"
Those areas produce "a feeling of nothing wrong. It's a lower-level happiness
and it's certainly rewarding," Brown said.
The scientists say they study the brain in love just to understand how it works,
as well as for more potentially practical uses.
The research could eventually lead to pills based on the brain hormones which,
with therapy, might help troubled relationships, although there are ethical
issues, Young said. His bonding research is primarily part of a larger effort
aimed at understanding and possibly treating social-interaction conditions such
as autism. And Fisher is studying brain chemistry that could explain why certain
people are attracted to each other. She's using it as part of a popular Internet
matchmaking service for which she is the scientific adviser.
While the recent brain research is promising, University of Hawaii psychology
professor Elaine Hatfield cautions that too much can be made of these studies
alone. She said they need to be meshed with other work from traditional
Brain researchers are limited because there is only so much they can do to
humans without hurting them. That's where the prairie vole - a chubby,
short-tailed mouselike creature - comes in handy. Only 5 percent of mammals more
or less bond for life, but prairie voles do, Young said.
Scientists studied voles to figure out what makes bonding possible. In females,
the key bonding hormone is oxytocin, also produced in both voles and humans
during childbirth, Young said. When scientists blocked oxytocin receptors, the
female prairie voles didn't bond.
In males, it's vasopressin. Young put vasopressin receptors into the brains of
meadow voles - a promiscuous cousin of the prairie voles - and "those guys who
should never, ever bond with a female, bonded with a female."
Researchers also uncovered a genetic variation in a few male prairie voles that
are not monogamous - and found it in some human males, too.
Those men with the variation ranked lower on an emotional bonding scale,
reported more marital problems, and their wives had more concerns about their
level of attachment, said Hasse Walum, a biology researcher in Sweden. It was a
small but noticeable difference, Walum said.
Scientists figure they now know better how to keep those love circuits lit and
the chemicals flowing.
Young said that romantic love theoretically can be simulated with chemicals, but
"if you really want, you know, to get the relationship spark back, then engage
in the behavior that stimulates the release of these molecules and allow them to
stimulate the emotions," he said. That would be hugging, kissing, intimate
"My wife tells me that flowers work as well. I don't know for sure," Young said.
"As a scientist it's hard to see how it stimulates the circuits, but I do know
they seem to have an effect. And the absence of them seems to have an effect as
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