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Brains in love

When you're attracted to someone, is your gray matter talking sense -- or just hooked? Scientists take a rational look.

July 30, 2007|Susan Brink | Times Staff Writer

"We found some remarkable things," she said. "We saw activity in the ventral tegmental area and other regions of the brain's reward system associated with motivation, elation and focused attention." It's the same part of the brain that presumably is active when a smoker reaches for a cigarette or when gamblers think they're going to win the lottery. No wonder it's as hard to say no to the feeling of romantic arousal as it would be to say no to a windfall in the millions. The brain has seen what it wants, and it's going to get it.

"At that point, you really wouldn't notice if he had three heads," Fisher says. "Or you'd notice, but you'd choose to overlook it."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Love: An article in Monday's Health section on the biology of falling in love misquoted Katharine Hepburn's character in the movie "On Golden Pond" as saying (of Henry Fonda's character), "He's my knight in shining armor." The correct quote is, "You're my knight in shining armor."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, August 06, 2007 Home Edition Health Part F Page 9 Features Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Love: An article in last week's Health section on the biology of falling in love misquoted Katharine Hepburn's character in the movie "On Golden Pond" as saying (of Henry Fonda's character), "He's my knight in shining armor." The correct quote is, "You're my knight in shining armor."

Other studies also suggest that the brain in the first throes of love is much like a brain on drugs.

Lucy Brown, professor of neuroscience at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, has also taken fMRI images of people in the early days of a new love. In a study reported in the July 2005, Journal of Neurophysiology, she too found key activity in the ventral tegmental area. "That's the area that's also active when a cocaine addict gets an IV injection of cocaine," Brown says. "It's not a craving. It's a high."

You see someone, you click, and you're euphoric. And in response, your ventral tegmental area uses chemical messengers such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin to send signals racing to a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens with the good news, telling it to start craving.

"The other person becomes a goal in your life," Brown says. He or she becomes a goal you might die without and would pack up and move across the country for. That one person begins to stand out as the one and only.

Biologically, the cravings and pleasure unleashed are as strong as any drug. Surely such a goal is worth taking risks for, and other alterations in the brain help ensure that the lovelorn will do just that. Certain regions, scientists have found, are being deactivated, such as within the amygdala, associated with fear. "That's why you can do such insane things when you're in love," Fisher says. "You would never otherwise dream of driving across the country in 13 hours, but for love, you would."

Sooner or later, excited brain messages reach the caudate nucleus, a dopamine-rich area where unconscious habits and skills, such as the ability to ride a bike, are stored.

The attraction signal turns the love object into a habit, and then an obsession. According to a 1999 study in the journal Psychological Medicine, people newly in love have serotonin levels 40% lower than normal people do -- just like people with obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Experiments in other mammals add to the human chemical findings. Female prairie voles, for example, develop a distinct preference for a specific male after mating, and the preference is associated with a 50% increase in dopamine in the nucleus accumbens.

But when the monogamous vole is injected with a dopamine antagonist, blocking the activity of the chemical, she'll readily dump her partner for another.

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Using their heads

Kelly and Robert Iblings, now married for nine months, are fascinated by all this talk of nucleus accumbens, addiction and primitive mating instincts. Sure, they admit, they found each other attractive. But they were also making use of their front brains' sharp thinking skills. They were remembering painful past lessons and looking for signs of compatibility.

They had each survived an earlier, failed engagement, and they knew what they were looking for this time around. They were listening to their front brains as they told them to look for compatibility, stability, shared values and commitment.

From their first e-mail exchanges through eHarmony, an Internet dating service, the Iblings each felt they had found a unique mate. She liked to travel. So did he. They both love books and learning, have similar religious beliefs and come from loving, intact families. She no sooner sent an e-mail telling him about an exhibit she saw on a business trip to New York than he sent a message back telling her he knew of the exhibit because he had bought a book on it the day before.

Coincidence, or soul mate?

The front brain certainly gets involved as it ponders all of life's experiences and past mistakes, researchers say -- but not just the front brain. The nucleus accumbens, virtual swamp of dopamine that it is, is also holder of memories. Its quest for reward is influenced by childhood experiences, friends, previous failed engagements or the jerk who cheated on you. The sum of those experiences make some people attracted to a prince or a frog, a princess or a shrew.

And, as it happens, practical matters such as whether a couple both like piƱa coladas and getting caught in the rain do matter in igniting passionate love.

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