“For those of you perplexed by love’s elusiveness, take heart: Science is on the case. But even if researchers can turn love into peer-reviewed literature, they might not be able to bottle it. “People think we’re going to get a love potion, and that’s nonsense,” said Helen Fisher, a Rutgers University evolutionary anthropologist. “I don’t think they understand how complex the brain is, and what a powerful role experience plays.”
Fisher’s comments were prompted by an essay, entitled “Love: Neuroscience reveals all” and published Wednesday in Nature, on emerging research into those four little letters that make the world go round. This research shows how a “biochemical chain of events,” as essay author and Emory University neurobiologist Larry Young calls it, produces neurological patterns associated with subjective experiences described as love. (If that sounds overly technical, it’s meant to: Identifying brain patterns is just one step in explaining how they become thoughts and feelings.)
Studies on the more-or-less monogamous prairie vole, for example, suggest that a neurotransmitter called oxytocin is important to mate bonding. Oxytocin interacts with another transmitter, pleasure-inducing dopamine. In humans, brain regions associated with dopamine are activated in mothers looking at pictures of their children, and lovers at each other — and, perhaps instructively, in drug addicts taking heroin or cocaine.
Also, a gene associated with paternal care and long-term bonding in prairie voles led to the identification of a human gene variant that correlates loosely with the ability of men to form caring, stable relationships. To Young, all this means that science may soon treat lovelessness as easily as it now treats depression and anxiety. “Drugs that manipulate brain systems at whim to enhance or diminish our love for another may not be far away,” he writes. Not so fast, said Fisher.”