In a study on prairie voles, researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder have discovered that love leaves a lasting mark on the brain. The study, published in the journal Current Biology, sheds light on the role of dopamine in maintaining long-term intimate relationships.
Prairie voles, known for their monogamous pair bonding behaviour, share similarities with humans in terms of forming long-term partnerships and experiencing emotional distress when separated from their partners. By studying these rodents, the researchers aimed to gain insights into the neurochemical processes that underlie human relationships.
The research team, led by senior author Zoe Donaldson, associate professor of behavioural neuroscience, employed cutting-edge neuroimaging technology to observe the brain activity of voles as they sought to reunite with their partners. The nucleus accumbens, a brain region associated with seeking rewarding stimuli, was the focus of their investigation.
Using a lever or climbing over a fence to reach their partner, the voles exhibited a surge of dopamine in their brains. This neurotransmitter, often referred to as the pleasure hormone, played a critical role in motivating the voles to seek out their partners. The researchers observed that the nucleus accumbens lit up, indicating increased dopamine activity, when the voles engaged with their partners, such as snuggling or sniffing, in comparison to encounters with unfamiliar voles.
Furthermore, the study explored the impact of separation on the voles’ neurochemical responses. After being kept apart for four weeks, the voles reunited, showing signs of remembering each other. However, their dopamine surge had significantly diminished. This suggests that the brain undergoes a reset, enabling the voles to potentially form new bonds.
Donaldson believes that this reset mechanism could offer hope to individuals who have experienced heartbreak or the loss of a loved one. The brain’s ability to protect against prolonged unrequited love may serve as a natural defense mechanism. While more research is needed to fully understand how these findings translate to humans, the implications for individuals with difficulty forming close relationships or coping with loss are promising.
By unraveling the neurochemical processes behind healthy bonds, the researchers aim to develop new therapeutic approaches for individuals affected by mental illnesses that impact their social interactions. Understanding the biological signature of desire and the role of dopamine in maintaining intimate relationships may pave the way for innovative treatments and interventions.
As senior author Zoe Donaldson remarks, “This research suggests that certain people leave a unique chemical imprint on our brain that drives us to maintain these bonds over time.”