3Qs: A crazy little drug called love

February 17, 2014 by Angela Herring
Moviemakers and songsters have long realized that love affects us just like an addiction. Now the scientists can confirm it. Credit: Thinkstock.

Singers and filmmakers know it: Love is a drug. Popular lines such as, "Love is the drug, got a hook on me," or "I wish I knew how to quit you," solidify this pop culture notion. But is it really true, scientifically speaking? Does romantic love look the same way on our brains as alcohol, tobacco, or cocaine? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it does.

A new study from the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Lab of Northeastern University Distinguished Professor of Psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett compiled data that scientists have collected over the years, confirming that yes, love is indeed a kind of drug. We asked Shir Atzil, a postdoctoral research associate in Barrett's lab, to explain the findings.

How does romantic love mirror addiction in the behavioral patterns elicited by the two phenomena?

The behavior of a drug user has a lot in common with someone in love. The intense overwhelming high feeling that accompanies falling in love can be compared to the euphoric "high" experienced during initial drug use. When in love, all you can think about is your partner. Such "intrusive" thoughts and desire for proximity also characterize drug users and their typical drug seeking behaviors. At this point, longing ‎for your lover may feel very similar to craving your drug. After a while, the gradual disappearance of the bliss ‎associated with new love is similar to tolerance. The same stimulus—your partner or the next "hit"—is no longer sufficient to maintain the same level of ecstasy.

Last, both breaking up and suspending drug use causes "withdrawal-like" unpleasant reactions. Often romantic partners will keep seeing each other, even though they realize it is bad for them, just to avoid these feelings of "love withdrawal." Drug use and attachment are not only behaviorally alike, but also impact each other. Using drugs can soothe the painful yearning for a lost partner, and the loss of a partner can enhance drug use. Moreover, both phenomena are triggered and modulated by stressful events.

How are those behavioral patterns reflected in our neurobiology, and does the similarity persist in the brain?

Active drug users secrete dopamine in certain such as the nucleus accumbens, putamen, pallidum, and caudate, which together make up the mesolimbic dopamine system. This dopamine secretion is thought to reflect the good feeling, the "reward," that they get from using the drug and create the motivation to get more of that drug. Merely seeing a cigarette will cause an addicted person to secrete dopamine.

To the brain, showing the to a person in love is quite similar to presenting a cigarette to a smoker. When a subject lying inside a brain scanner sees a picture of his romantic partner, the same mesolimbic dopamine brain regions are activated. Cortical brain regions usually linked to mentalizing, such as the medial-prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate, are also consistently involved in both addiction and romance. According to the incentive sensitization theory of addiction, the dopaminergic reward response following each "hit" sensitizes the brain to the next "hit" and actually makes the drug more desirable. It seems that both drug use and romance follow this principal of the incentive sensitization. The neural adaptations following the repeated exposure to our new romantic partner transform ordinary levels of interest into excessive intense .

How can the knowledge of this overlap inform future addiction prevention or treatment protocols?

Being "addicted"‎ to a lover is evolutionarily beneficial. Love is strongly supported by a biologically-based reward system that evolved to ‎motivate mate selection and courtship behavior.‎ Given that drugs seem to operate on the same neural pathways, it has been suggested that drugs "hijacked" the romance neural mechanism, which may be the reason for its robust addictive potency. Establishing the commonalities between romantic affiliation and drug use raises the possibility of new research that could enhance our understanding and coping strategies for dealing with phenomena such as the individual differences associated with the vulnerability to drug abuse. Moreover, the mechanistic similarity between drug use and romance marks the potential of social attachment and support as a prophylactic and therapeutic aid to deal with abuse.

Explore further: Meditation helps pinpoint neurological differences between two types of love

Related Stories

Meditation helps pinpoint neurological differences between two types of love

February 12, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—These findings won't appear on any Hallmark card, but romantic love tends to activate the same reward areas of the brain as cocaine, research has shown.

What falling in love does to your heart and brain

February 7, 2014
Getting struck by Cupid's arrow may very well take your breath away and make your heart go pitter-patter this Valentine's Day, reports sexual wellness specialists at Loyola University Health System.

The immune system's role in addiction

November 25, 2013
How do you know you are sick?

Natural compound mitigates effects of methamphetamine abuse

November 19, 2013
Studies have shown that resveratrol, a natural compound found in colored vegetables, fruits and especially grapes, may minimize the impact of Parkinson's disease, stroke and Alzheimer's disease in those who maintain healthy ...

I want to know where love is: Research develops first brain map of love and desire

June 20, 2012
Thanks to modern science, we know that love lives in the brain, not in the heart. But where in the brain is it – and is it in the same place as sexual desire? A recent international study is the first to draw an exact ...

Recommended for you

Heart rate study tests emotional impact of Shakespeare

July 26, 2017
In a world where on-screen violence has become commonplace, Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company is turning to science to discover whether the playwright can still make our hearts race more than 400 years on.

Talking to yourself can help you control stressful emotions

July 26, 2017
The simple act of silently talking to yourself in the third person during stressful times may help you control emotions without any additional mental effort than what you would use for first-person self-talk – the way people ...

Do all people experience similar near-death-experiences?

July 26, 2017
No one really knows what happens when we die, but many people have stories to tell about what they experienced while being close to death. People who have had a near-death-experience usually report very rich and detailed ...

Risk for bipolar disorder associated with faster aging

July 26, 2017
New King's College London research suggests that people with a family history of bipolar disorder may 'age' more rapidly than those without a history of the disease.

Visual clues we use during walking and when we use them

July 25, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A trio of researchers with the University of Texas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has discovered which phase of visual information processing during human walking is used most to guide the feet accurately. ...

Toddlers begin learning rules of reading, writing at very early age, study finds

July 25, 2017
Even the proudest of parents may struggle to find some semblance of meaning behind the seemingly random mish-mash of letters that often emerge from a toddler's first scribbled and scrawled attempts at putting words on paper.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.