Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The neuroscience of love

Larry Young offers this latest installment in Nature's "Being Human" series on a topic I have mentioned in a number of previous posts. He notes that animal studies that demystified emotions such as fear and anxiety are beginning to illuminate the mental states associated with love. This has implications for the nature of human sexuality — and could even lead to drugs to enhance or diminish our love for another. Tierney comments (the graphic is from his article) on Young's essay , suggesting that
...the really good news, as I see it, is that we might reverse-engineer an anti-love potion, a vaccine preventing you from making an infatuated ass of yourself.
Here are some clips from Young:
We are not alone in being able to form intense and enduring social ties. Take the mother–infant bond. Whether or not the emotional connection between a ewe and her lamb, or a female macaque and her offspring, is qualitatively similar to human motherly love, it is highly likely that these relationships share evolutionarily conserved brain mechanisms. In humans, rats and sheep, the hormone oxytocin is released during labour, delivery and nursing. In ewes, an infusion of oxytocin into the brain results in rapid bonding with a foreign lamb...There is intriguing overlap between the brain areas involved in vole pair bonding and those associated with human love. Dopamine-related reward regions of the human brain are active in mothers viewing images of their child. Similar activation patterns are seen in people looking at photographs of their lovers.

Pair bonding in males involves similar brain circuitry to that in females, but different neurochemical pathways. In male prairie voles, for example, vasopressin — a hormone related to oxytocin — stimulates pair bonding, aggression towards potential rivals, and paternal instincts, such as grooming offspring in the nest. Variation in a regulatory region of the vasopressin receptor gene, avpr1a, predicts the likelihood that a male vole will bond with a female.

Similarly, in humans, different forms of the AVPR1A gene are associated with variation in pair bonding and relationship quality. A recent study shows that men with a particular AVPR1A variant are twice as likely as men without it to remain unmarried, or when married, twice as likely to report a recent crisis in their marriage. Spouses of men with the variant also express more dissatisfaction in their relationships than do those of men lacking it. For both voles and humans, AVPR1A genetic polymorphisms predict how much vasopressin receptor is expressed in the brain.

The view of love as an emergent property of a cocktail of ancient neuropeptides and neurotransmitters raises important issues for society. For one thing, drugs that manipulate brain systems at whim to enhance or diminish our love for another may not be far away. Experiments have shown that a nasal squirt of oxytocin enhances trust and tunes people into others' emotions. Internet entrepreneurs are already marketing products such as Enhanced Liquid Trust, a cologne-like mixture of oxytocin and pheromones "designed to boost the dating and relationship area of your life". Although such products are unlikely to do anything other than boost users' confidence, studies are under way in Australia to determine whether an oxytocin spray might aid traditional marital therapy.

We don't yet know whether the drugs commonly used to treat disorders from depression to sexual dysfunction affect people's relationships by altering neurochemistry. But both Prozac and Viagra influence the oxytocin system. The quality of patients' relationships should be included in the list of variables assessed in controlled psychiatric drug studies.

No comments:

Post a Comment