New Scientist examines the biochemical roots of the emotion we call “love” – and the chemicals we could take to reverse the symptoms:
…[E]thics aside, what could a cure for love look like?
First things first: what is love? For Shakespeare, it “is an ever-fixed mark, that looks on tempests and is never shaken”. For neuroscientists, it’s less poetic: a neurobiological phenomenon that falls into three subtypes: lust, attraction and attachment – all of which increase our reproductive and parental success.
Each aspect is grounded in a suite of overlapping chemical systems in the brain. There are ways to diminish each of them, says Helen Fisher at Rutgers University in New Jersey, but they aren’t always palatable.
Drugs that boost serotonin can offer relief to people with OCD, so it’s reasonable to think that they could also help to dampen lustful feelings. These drugs include antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which are known to blunt extreme emotions and make it harder to form romantic bonds. This is an unwanted side effect for people with depression, but for those seeking to detach from someone, it could be welcome.
What if it’s not lust but a lasting bond you want severed? Several chemicals play a role in helping us form attachments, and animal studies are showing how we could manipulate them to do just that.
The prairie vole is famously monogamous – it forms one life-long bond. However, when Larry Young at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, injected female voles with a drug that blocked either dopamine or oxytocin, they became polygamous. “This suggests you might be able to block oxytocin and sever a long-term attachment,” says Young.
But oxytocin is important for all relationships, not just romantic love. You might cure your broken heart, but is it worth impairing all your other relationships?