Most people associate Valentine’s Day with roses, boxes of chocolates and candlelit dinners. But when researchers used sophisticated imaging technology to look at the brains of people who’d recently fallen in love, another word came to mind: addiction.
“Look at new love under an MRI,” said OMRF scientist Yasvir Tesiram, Ph.D., “and the brain looks very similar to someone with an intense craving.”
Brain scans known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) show how the brain reacts to stimuli. Using functional MRI, researchers have found that showing a picture of a person’s new love activates hot spots in the areas deep within the brain.
“A study in The Journal of Neurophysiology showed that new love lit up the same cells that make and receive the chemical dopamine,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “The same parts of the brain are extremely active in gamblers and cocaine users.”
But love, like anything else in the brain, is very complicated, said Tesiram, whose research focuses on the use of MRI for the early detection and treatment of diseases such as brain and liver cancer. Scientists may have a crude idea of what roles certain parts of the brain play, but they’re still puzzling over the details.
“We’re a long way from understanding the complexity of human attraction,” said Prescott. “And unlike most of the conditions we study at OMRF, love isn’t something we’re looking to cure.”
Still, it’s a topic that continues to draw research interests. Studies have also used functional MRI to examine the brains of people who’ve recently suffered break-ups. Researchers have also tapped the technology to study those who have remained intensely “in love” for a decade or more.
“MRI shows that love lights up the same system associated with elation, energy, craving and motivation,” Tesiram said. “It brings a new kind of meaning to the song ‘Addicted to Love,’ doesn’t it?”