What's love got to do with it: fMRI and the loving brain

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  • Published: Feb 1, 2011
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: What's love got to do with it: fMRI and the loving brain

Long-term love

Spring may not be in the air, but it's certainly on the minds of researchers in the US. A small functional magnetic resonance imaging has been used to investigate love. The study revealed brain activity in 10 women and 7 men when they looked at photos of their spouses to whom they had been married an average of 21 years. The results? Apparently, love lasts.

To find out whether love can last. That was the aim of Bianca Acevedo and Arthur Aron of the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University, and colleagues, Helen Fisher of Rutgers University and Lucy Brown of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The team used fMRI to investigate whether neural activity, as revealed by increased blood flow to particular regions of the brain associated with feelings of love (reward, motivation and wanting), rises when people see the face of their lover. They also wanted to determine whether there is a difference between people who are newly in love or who have been in long-term loving relationships.

The fMRI showed that very similar brain activity occurs in the loving regions. The research, published online in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, is the first to carry out imaging and to analyze the neural correlates of people in long-term romantic love. The results and could give scientists clues as to why couples stay in love.

The tests involved showing the loving participants images of their partner, and control images including of a close friend, who was presumably not also a romantic interest, a highly familiar acquaintance and a person they did not know well at all. The researchers compared their fMRI results with their data from 2005 where they scanned men and women whom had fallen "madly" in love within the past year.

Loving similarities

"We found many very clear similarities between those who were in love long term and those who had just fallen madly in love," explains Aron, referring to key reward and motivation regions of the brain, largely parts of the dopamine-rich ventral tegmental area (VTA). "In this latest study, the VTA showed greater response to images of a long-term partner when compared with images of a close friend or any of the other facial images."

"Interestingly, the same VTA region showed greater activation for those in the long-term couple group who scored especially high on romantic love scales and a closeness scale based on questionnaires," Acevedo adds.

The researchers suggest that the imaging data on the long-term couples suggest that reward-value associated with a long-term partner may be sustained at a similar level to that seen in new love. The work lends support to theories that point to specific brain mechanisms through which romantic love is sustained in some long-term relationships.

The basic findings in this small sample of lovers also hints that greater closeness with a partner is associated with activity in reward and motivation centres (the VTA and substantia nigra), as well as human awareness (middle insula and anterior cingulate cortex). They point out that relationship length was significantly associated with activity of the ventral and dorsal striatum, which correlates with activity seen in individuals yearning for a deceased loved one. The same activity is also seen in a cocaine-induced high which would hint at how attachment is perhaps the counterpart of addiction. They also found that frequent sexual activity correlated positively with activity of the posterior hippocampus; this region has been investigated in studies of hunger and craving, as well as in obsessive behaviour associated with the early stages love.

A loving foundation

Acevedo has launched The Foundation for Healthy Relationships & Lives with a mission of promoting healthy relationships by raising awareness and give people the skills to develop positive relationships. The team's research could feed into that mission by helping us understand what underpins loving relationships in terms of our brains. Aron is now investigating whether the study findings could help in marriage counselling for couples where one partner is returning from service in Iraq or Afghanistan.

 

 



The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

 
Spring may not be in the air, but it's certainly on the minds of researchers in the US. A small functional magnetic resonance imaging has been used to investigate love. The study revealed brain activity in 10 women and 7 men when they looked at photos of their spouses to whom they had been married an average of 21 years. The results? Apparently, love lasts.

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