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Brain imaging yields clues about why love lasts

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Images of the brain help researchers understand why couples stay in love.

Scientists have discovered the same sort of brain activity occurs in couples recently in love and individuals in long-term romantic relationships. They say the discovery gives clues about what makes love last.

In the study, couples were shown various facial images of their partner, control images including a close friend, a well known acquaintance or a low familiar person, while undergoing MRI.

Researchers at the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University who used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), found lasting love stimulates areas of the brain involved in reward, motivation and “wanting” in couples with long-term relationships and those who had fallen in love recently.

The study is the first to uncover the neural underpinnings of love. Co-leader of the research, Arthur Aron, Ph.D., of the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook says, “We found many very clear similarities between those who were in love long term and those who had just fallen madly in love”, referring to parts of the dopamine-rich ventral tegmental areas (VTA) that are associated with reward and motivation.

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The scientists also noted the brain imaging findings correlated for couples who scored high on scales measuring closeness and romantic love. The researchers suspect there are specific brain areas that are stimulated, or rewarded in couples who have long-lasting, loving relationships.

Other findings from the study of 10 women and 7 men who reported being in love an average of 21 years, included activity in the reward and motivation (in the VTA and substantia nigra area of the brain, reflective of greater closeness to a partner.

Human awareness lit up the middle insula and anterior cingulate cortex and activity was seen in the ventral and dorsal striatum among couples with long-term relationships that may be addictive - the same area stimulated by cocaine or yearning for a lost loved one.

Couples who reported sexual frequency displayed brain activity in the posterior hippocampus of the brain that is responsible for cravings, obsession, hunger and early love relationships.

Brain imaging gives scientists new clues about relationships that endure the test of time. Seeing how love lasts scientifically, with fMRI brain imaging studies, provides clues about why people stay in love.

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci (2011) doi: 10.1093/scan/nsq092
Reference: Oxford Journals
This page is updated on April 18, 2013.