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Romance that Lasts? Brain Scans Say Yes
5/12/2011
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Brain chemistry and hormones play critical roles in mediating and sustaining romance… from early infatuation through the first passion-filled months or years of a new love.
 
But standup comics would lack loads of easy material if it weren’t so common for romance to fade fairly quickly from many marriages ... a decline in desire often hastened by parenthood.
 
Yet, some couples claim that their mutual passion persists for decades … an assertion that can prompt envy among their dispassionate peers.
 
Scientists have been subjecting lovers to study for several years, looking for everything from the brain effects of young love to romantic love’s ability to blunt or cause pain (Younger J et al. 2010; Beauregard M et al. 2009; Najib A et al. 2004).
 
Many of these studies have come from neuroscientists at New York’s Stony Brook University, led by psychology professor Arthur Aron, Ph.D.
 
Now, Dr. Aron’s team’s findings from a study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) suggest that folks who claim a very long-lasting romance aren’t necessarily fibbing.
 
Among long-term romantics, partner’s picture activates the brain’s desire center
Dr. Aron’s team created a seven-point scale to rank the intensity of love participants felt in their relationship.
 
They then recruited 17 adults who’d been married for 10 to 29 years, who claimed that they still felt strongly in love and scored a ranking of five or more on the test.
 
The participants were shown pictures of their partner’s face with an fMRI machine recording brain activity.
 
As controls, they were also shown face photos of other members of the opposite sex, including familiar and slight acquaintances and a close, long-term friend.
 
When presented with an image of their partner, they showed responses in the dopamine-rich regions of the brain’s basal ganglia “reward” system (e.g., the ventral tegmental area and dorsal striatum).
 
This part of the brain is associated with cravings, and is a motivator for wants and desires.
 
The long-term romantics who rated themselves highest in the seven-point scale showed more activity than those who scored only five.
 
When shown images of the “controls”, with whom they did not claim a romantic relationship, these brain regions remained quiet.
 
The study also showed differences between the brain activities of people in new relationships – who typically show more activity in the regions related to obsession and tension – while the brains of long-term romantics lit up more in the regions linked to pair bonding and attachment.
 
These findings could be a first step to understanding the biology behind long-lasting love relationships … as unromantic as that may be!
 
 
Sources
  • Acevedo BP, Aron A, Fisher HE, Brown LL. Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2011 Jan 5. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Aron A, Fisher H, Mashek DJ, Strong G, Li H, Brown LL. Reward, motivation, and emotion systems associated with early-stage intense romantic love. J Neurophysiol. 2005 Jul;94(1):327-37. Epub 2005 May 31.
  • Beauregard M, Courtemanche J, Paquette V, St-Pierre EL. The neural basis of unconditional love. Psychiatry Res. 2009 May 15;172(2):93-8. Epub 2009 Mar 25.
  • Braconnier D. Neurochemical evidence that long-lasting love is possible. Medical Xpress. May 11, 2011. Accessed at http://medicalxpress.com/news/2011-05-neurochemical-evidence-long-lasting.html
  • Fisher H, Aron A, Brown LL. Romantic love: an fMRI study of a neural mechanism for mate choice. J Comp Neurol. 2005 Dec 5;493(1):58-62. Review.
  • Fisher HE, Aron A, Brown LL. Romantic love: a mammalian brain system for mate choice. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2006 Dec 29;361(1476):2173-86. Review.
  • Fisher HE, Brown LL, Aron A, Strong G, Mashek D. Reward, addiction, and emotion regulation systems associated with rejection in love. J Neurophysiol. 2010 Jul;104(1):51-60. Epub 2010 May 5.
  • Hum Brain Mapp. 2011 Feb;32(2):249-57. doi: 10.1002/hbm.21017.
  • Najib A, Lorberbaum JP, Kose S, Bohning DE, George MS. Regional brain activity in women grieving a romantic relationship breakup. Am J Psychiatry. 2004 Dec;161(12):2245-56.
  • Xu X, Aron A, Brown L, Cao G, Feng T, Weng X. Reward and motivation systems: a brain mapping study of early-stage intense romantic love in Chinese participants
  • Younger J, Aron A, Parke S, Chatterjee N, Mackey S. Viewing pictures of a romantic partner reduces experimental pain: involvement of neural reward systems. PLoS One. 2010 Oct 13;5(10):e13309.
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