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What does love look like in the brain? A rush of dopamine

Experts at the University of Colorado Boulder have discovered a “chemical imprint of desire” in the brain, revealing a profound insight into the neurological underpinnings of love and relationships. The study highlights the critical role of dopamine in sustaining romantic bonds.

Monogamous prairie voles 

The research, led by Professor Zoe Donaldson, was focused on the behavior of prairie voles, a species known for their monogamous pair bonding. Like humans, these creatures exhibit long-term coupling, shared child-rearing, and even show signs of grief upon losing a partner. 

Professor Donaldson’s work with prairie voles offers a window into how the human brain develops and maintains intimate relationships, as well as the neurochemical response when these bonds break.

Biological signature of desire

“What we have found, essentially, is a biological signature of desire that helps us explain why we want to be with some people more than other people,” explained Professor Donaldson. 

The study illustrates for the first time how dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is vital for keeping love alive. 

“As humans, our entire social world is basically defined by different degrees of selective desire to interact with different people, whether it’s your romantic partner or your close friends,” said Professor Donaldson. “This research suggests that certain people leave a unique chemical imprint on our brain that drives us to maintain these bonds over time.”

Love lights up the brain

To investigate, the researchers used advanced neuroimaging technology. They observed voles’ brain activities as they attempted to reunite with their partners, either by pressing a lever or climbing a barrier. 

The focus was on the nucleus accumbens, a brain area that motivates rewarding behaviors. The team used a tiny fiber-optic sensor to track activity in the nucleus accumbens millisecond by millisecond. Remarkably, each time the voles neared their partners, this region showed a surge in dopamine, lighting up “like a glow stick.”

Rewarding relationships 

Study first author Anne Pierce said that when the voles pushed the lever or climbed over the wall to see their life partner, the fiber-optic sensor “lit up like a rave,” and this continued as the pair snuggled and sniffed each other. By contrast, when the animals encountered a stranger vole, the fiber had a dim response.

“This suggests that not only is dopamine really important for motivating us to seek out our partner, but there’s actually more dopamine coursing through our reward center when we are with our partner than when we are with a stranger,” said Pierce.

Neurological coping mechanism

The study also sheds light on the brain’s coping mechanisms after a breakup. In a separate experiment, voles were separated from their partners for an extended period of time. 

When the pairs reunited, there was almost no dopamine activity. “We think of this as sort of a reset within the brain that allows the animal to now go on and potentially form a new bond,” said Donaldson.

This discovery offers hope for humans experiencing heartbreak or loss, hinting at a natural brain mechanism that guards against prolonged unrequited love.

Study implications 

The experts emphasize that more research is needed to determine how these results translate to humans. However, they believe their study could ultimately have important implications for people who either have trouble forming close relationships or those who struggle to get over loss – a condition known as prolonged grief disorder.

“The hope is that by understanding what healthy bonds look like within the brain, we can begin to identify new therapies to help the many people with mental illnesses that affect their social world,” said Donaldson.

The study is published in the journal Current Biology

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