New Orleans--Who says science and romance don't mix? Using high-tech methods, researchers have discovered which parts of the brain help us fall in love. The work, presented here on 7 November at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting, shows that in some ways, love is like a drug.
Scientists haven't explored pleasant emotions as extensively as they have negative ones. Anxiety, anger, and fear, for example, have all been mapped to certain brain areas in humans or animals. Indeed, romantic love has been neglected in neuroscience, says psychologist Andreas Bartels of University College London, United Kingdom--in part because of its complexity and the lack of a good animal model.
So Bartels and his colleague Semir Zeki recruited subjects who were truly, madly in love. To verify this, they used the "passionate love scale," a scientific, standardized version of a fashion-magazine-style questionnaire. Eighteen grad students and postdocs--11 women and seven men--scored off the charts. The researchers studied the lovers' brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging, while they flashed pictures of either their sweetheart or a close friend of the same sex and age as the beaux. Seeing the object of their desire increased activity in brain clusters called the insula, cingulate, putamen, and caudate nucleus--regions, curiously enough, that also light up under cocaine-induced euphoria, Bartels says. Activity decreased in other areas, including the ones that are overactive in depressed people.
The results make sense, says psychiatrist Israel Liberzon of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, because being in love is generally a pleasant sensation. But he cautions that seeing a picture of a lover also triggers more intense feelings than seeing a friend, so the brain scans could be picking up general arousal rather than pure romantic love.