Love, obsession, and addiction: it’s all neurochemistry

August 24, 2010 by  
Filed under ADDICTION

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Everything may be explained by chemistry nowadays. Stress is due to cortisol. Intense spiritual experience is linked to low serotonin. Benevolence is linked to oxytocin. What about love? Researchers at the University of Toronto report that neurochemicals, too, are involved in emotions like attraction, love, and lovesickness. Professor Jose Lanca of the Department of Pharmacology explains:

“When we talk about love, there are different concepts involved, for example, romantic love versus maternal love. These are two completely different situations even from a biochemical point of view. However, there is something absolutely in common in both these situations. When someone is very much attached to another person, their feelings trigger motivation and positive feedback. All of this relates to the limbic system – the area of the brain that mediates our reward mechanisms. This system plays a key role in the mechanisms responsible for the survival of the individual – meaning the ‘fight or flight’ response – and preservation of the species – specifically reproduction. Its actions result from the interplay among various neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, and neuropeptides such as oxytocin and opioids.”

In fact, love has some similarities to drug addiction. Addictive drugs also target dopamine but instead of releasing the neurochemical within normal levels, drugs overstimulate the limbic system leading to dopamine being released beyond normal limits. The result is dependences and addiction. In the same way, love can become addictive and turn into an unhealthy obsession. Obsession with somebody results in overstimulation, too much dopamine and ultimate dependence on that person. The film “Fatal Attraction” brings this to mind.

But how does love develop into obsession? Prof Lanca continues to explain:

“In science we have very good questions but not enough good answers. What we do know is that in the case of obsession there is a decrease in serotonin. This neurotransmitter can be regulated using medications, such as anti-depressants. However, overuse of anti-depressants can lead to higher tolerance and consequently the need for an increased dosage. If this becomes the case, anti-depressants can very easily become drugs of addiction.
In humans the complexity of love goes well beyond the simple limbic activity and involves cognitive and intense emotional behaviours. The diagnostic might be easy, but the treatment is ineffective. To quote one of my favourite poet songwriters, Leonard Cohen, “There is no cure for love.”

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