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Monday, February 14, 2011

Love and Chemistry -- Using Your Head

Brain-shaped boxes of chocolates, cranium adorned helium balloons, greeting cards featuring images of Albert Einstein -- why not use the real symbol of love on romantic products? Romantic love is truly "all in your head." At least, that is something more and more scientists believe.

Learning more about the biochemistry of love, I think the appropriate body part to symbolize the emotion of love should be the brain, not the traditional heart.Chemicals responsible for your behaviors in love and in your relationships belong to the class of "neurochemicals," compounds forming largely in the brain and participating in neural activity. The brain, in its turn, passes them to other parts of the body, but "in the head" it all gets started. 

Researchers are using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to watch people's brains when they look at a photograph of their object of affection. According to Helen Fisher, a well-known love researcher and an anthropologist at Rutgers University, what they see in those scans during that "crazed, can't-think-of-anything-but stage of romance" -- the attraction stage -- is the biological drive to focus on one person.

Is love at first sight likely to be found only in fairy tales?  Researchers found falling in love for some only takes about a fifth of a second. Results from Professor Stephanie Ortigue's team at Syracuse reveal when a person falls in love, 12 areas of the brain work in tandem to release euphoria-inducing chemicals. (Science Daily, October 25 2010) With a quick brain rush of love chemicals, the rest of the body may be overwhelmed, and a person could fall instantaneously in love. Really.

But, don't be surprised if a knight in shining armor or a Venus goddess doesn't smite you from the blue. Most people go through a series of steps, namely lust and attraction, before experiencing love, and those steps, also, all seem to be chemical in nature. The lust, the attraction, and the eventual love emotion powerfully drive a subject toward romance.

Of course, any love affair begins with a good dose of  lust. Did you know that raw lust is characterized by high levels of  testosterone? The sex drive is associated with a class of hormones called androgens, particularly testosterone (yes, women produce it, too). Playing competitive sports has been shown to trigger testosterone production; in fact, women get a bigger boost than men during a competition. So, maybe jocks is a term that should be changed for good reason. Testosterone ignites both sexes.

Everyone knows that men kiss women to stimulate them. Duh? But, do you know the real unconscious reason why? Testosterone levels of saliva and blood are essentially identical. Some research suggests wet kisses improve all aspects of sexuality in low libido women and increase that of normal women even more. The researchers believe these hormones are one of the keys to reproductive success, so there's a link to evolution and passing on your genes to the next generation. "One study found that 66 percent of women and 59 percent of men say that the quality of the first kiss can kill a relationship," Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher said. (Tudor Vieru, "How To Give the Perfect Kiss,", February 14 2009)

Fisher, however, cautions men not to get carried away during a kiss, because high amounts of saliva can easily trigger their partner's “alarm signals,” and can end in a failed first date. Practice spit swapping must make perfect.

Lee Ann Obringer reports, "The (brain) scans showed increased blood flow in areas of the brain with high concentrations of receptors for dopamine -- associated with states of euphoria, craving and addiction. High levels of dopamine are also associated with norepinephrine, which heightens attention, short-term memory, hyperactivity, sleeplessness and goal-oriented behavior. In other words, couples in this stage of love focus intently on the relationship and often on little else." (Lee Ann Obringer, "How Love Works,", 2011)

So, dopamine makes people more talkative and excitable. It affects brain processes that control emotional response, movement, and the ability to express pleasure. Certainly, anyone who has experienced a love affair knows about that "dopey" feeling.

The main targets of the norepinephrine system to "ignite " are receptors in spinal cord, thalamus, phypothalamus, and  neocortex. A high level of norepinephrine in the brain increases the experience of joy and even reduces appetite. (G. D'Andrea, S. Terrazzino, D. Fortin, P, Cocco, T. Balbi, A. Leon. "Elusive Amines and Primary Headaches: Historical Background and Prospectives," Neurol Science, May 2003)

Phenylethylamine (PEA), acts as a releasing agent of norepinephrine and dopamine. The first attraction causes people to produce more PEA, which results in those dizzying feelings associated with romantic love. Large quantities of PEA increase both physical and emotional energy and, at the same time, release more dopamine (E.M. Parker.; L.X. Cubeddu (1988). "Comparative Effects of Amphetamine, Phenylethylamine and Related Drugs on Dopamine Efflux, Dopamine Uptake and Mazindol Binding," Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, 1988)

Other chemicals play a big part in the formation of romantic love, When two people have sex, oxytocin, is released, which helps bond the relationship. According to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, the hormone oxytocin has been shown to be "associated with the ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships and healthy psychological boundaries with other people." Released during orgasm, it starts an emotional bond. The more sex, the more the bond increases. Oxytocin is also associated with mother/infant bonding, uterine contractions during labor in childbirth and the "let down" reflex necessary for breastfeeding. Some interesting "love" comparisons arise here.

These feelings of trust and attachment fostered by the chemical oxytocinoxytocin before discussing an ongoing marital conflict were more likely to engage in friendly, positive communication than those who didn’t take a whiff. Of all things, a nasal spray? How romantic. 

Testosterone, dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin -- all these chemicals wait on brain cues, just percolating to be released. And new research concerning "love" chemicals goes on and on.

Spinal cord, thalamus, phypothalamus, and  neocortex -- all these cerebral-related areas are critical for love. But, no mention of the traditional organ, the heart, enters into the formula. The reliable, hard working muscle is  too busy pumping blood to concern itself with something as puzzling as love.


So shouldn't neurosurgeons -- those with a vast knowledge of the brain, the spinal cord, and the peripheral nerves-- be the greatest lovers?

Or maybe psychologists -- people who deal with mental processes and behavior -- are the real love gods and goddesses.

No, no, the biochemists -- those on the front line in the study of chemical substances and vital processes occurring in living organisms -- must surely reign as the real sexperts.

Love is so damn confusing. It remains just another thing that is constantly "on our brains." We seem to know when we are in it, but we seem to know very little about it or about its eventual outcomes. If biochemicals ignite every conceivable lovely thought, how much control do we really have? Friedrich Nietzsche aptly said, "When a man is in love he endures more than at other times; he submits to everything."

Love seems to begin with a tremendous high and then becomes chemically addictive. Many scientists believe being in love has its expiration date which, according to Polish biochemist and writer Janusz Wisniewski , is no longer than three years. This sad view makes one strongly suspect that love could be nothing more than a temporary physiological dependency, the deprivation of which produces withdrawal symptoms. (Anna Inger, "Is Love a Form of Addiction,", August 29 2010)

Is it any wonder some people become love junkies? They need chemistry or chemical excitement to feel happy about and intoxicated by life. Once this initial rush of chemicals wanes (inevitable after six months to three years, depending on the individual and the circumstances), their relationship crumbles. They're soon off
again on a new love safari.

In the classic Sonnet #147, William Shakespeare, the great bard himself, presents love in a way in which modern biochemists can fully relate:

"My love is as a fever, longing still 
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill, 
Th' uncertain sickly appetite to please."

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