When it comes to falling in love, the brain may be just as
involved as the heart, new research finds.
Lead scientist Stephanie Ortigue of Syracuse University and
her colleagues reviewed past brain research aimed at understanding love and found
that 12 areas of your brain seem to be working together when just a glimpse at
Mr. Right or Ms. Right makes you swoon.
Ortigue said the analysis, detailed in a recent issue of the
Journal of Sexual Medicine, will be followed up by a study that suggests it
takes about a fifth of a
second to fall in love.
Ortigue and her colleagues found that when a person falls in love, different
areas of the brain release euphoria-inducing chemicals such as dopamine,
oxytocin (the so-called love
hormone), adrenaline and vasopressin (known from animal studies to cause
aggression and territorial behavior).
Other studies have suggested blood levels of nerve growth
factor (NGF), a protein that plays a role in the survival and maintenance of
brain cells, also increase. Those levels were found to be significantly higher
in couples who had just fallen in love. Ortigue said this molecule also plays
an important role in the social chemistry between humans, or the phenomenon of love at
confirm love has a scientific basis," she added.
And not all love is created equal. The analysis found that
different parts of the brain are activated for different types of love. For
example, in the first brain study of romantic love, researchers recruited 17
volunteers who were "truly, deeply and madly in love" with a partner.
Love Is an Addiction]
When gazing at their significant others, participants showed
brain activity in the so-called dopaminergic subcortical system shown to be
active in people who were under the influence of euphoria-inducing drugs such
as cocaine. Other brain regions broadly activated included: the posterior
hippocampus linked to memory and mental associations; brain areas linked to emotions;
and those linked to reward processing, such as the insula and anterior cingulated
A 2004 study published in the journal Neuroimage focused on
maternal love in the brains of 20 mothers. Brain activity was monitored while
moms looked at pictures of their own child, of another child of the same age
with whom they were acquainted, their best friend, and of another acquaintance.
Brain regions associated with maternal love included those
related to higher cognitive or emotional processing. Compared with
passionate-love brain activity measured in a prior study, the researchers found
maternal love but not the romantic kind showed up in the periaqueductal gray
matter (PAG) - an area that contains receptors for mother-child bonding.
In a 2009 study of unconditional love, Mario Beauregard of the University of
Montreal and colleagues had 17 participants look at pictures showing children
and adults with intellectual disabilities. In another part of the study, the
participants had to look at those same pictures but this time they had to generate
feelings of unconditional love toward the images. Results showed significant
brain activity in some of the brain's reward systems (also linked to passionate
and mama-child love), along with the PAG implicated in maternal love.
Since higher-order cortical regions of the brain were
implicated in love, the researchers point out in the journal article: "This
reinforces the fact that love is more than a basic emotion. Love also involves cognition."
Ortigue's follow-up study, about the speed of love in the
human brain, is expected to be released soon. Both findings could help
scientists understand why we get so heartbroken
after a breakup and possibly lead to ways of treating the resulting
depression and emotional stress, Ortigue said.
In addition some of the same emotional-processing and reward
networks found to be involved in love have also been shown to play a role in
sexual responses. As such, the researchers say their findings may help advance
research in sexual medicine and couple therapy.