The Neurological Similarities Between Love and Drug Addiction

Substance abuse disorders affected over 19.7 million American adults in 2017. Young adults (between the ages of 18 and 25) comprised one out of every seven of these individuals (NIDA, 2018). Toxic narcotics — including cocaine, heroin, and alcohol — have one commonality in that they overstimulate reward pathways in the brain which can lead to addiction in the long term. Surprisingly, these same regions and their biochemistry are affected in individuals who experience “falling in love.” Long term addiction in particular mimics the state of the brain in the third stage of love, which is characterized by a dependent bonding between two individuals (Earp, 2017). Past research has elucidated the neurology behind drug usage, but new research studies have begun to explore the similarities between feelings of love and drug addiction, which could explain the global prevalence of drug abuse. 

Scientists theorize that individuals falling into romantic love undergo three stages characterized by distinct biochemical processes (Harvard News, 2019). In the first stage of love — lust —  the hypothalamus and pituitary gland stimulate the production of excess sex hormones, namely testosterone and estrogen, in the testes and ovaries. Testosterone increases sexual libido in both men and women which drives the desire for sexual gratification. The second stage, attraction, involves high levels of dopamine production from the hypothalamus, which activate the caudate nucleus (a region associated with reward expectations and social behaviors) as well as the ventral tegmental area (a brain region associated with pleasure, attention, and motivation). These initial phases of romantic love only last approximately six months (Song, 2012). In addition to affecting dopamine production, lust and attraction stimulate higher levels of other hormones in the body such as norepinephrine, cortisol, and endorphins. Elevated levels of these hormones result in high energy, stress, intense focus, and euphoria – especially after a sexual experience (Wu, 2019). To indulge in a long term relationship, couples must reach the final stage of love, attachment. The attachment phase results in high levels of oxytocin and vasopressin produced by the hypothalamus. Oxytocin and vasopressin are related to the development of familial roles such as motherhood and caring for other individuals. Couples in the final stage of love prefer bonding and comfort over the sexual experiences emphasized in the first and second phase (Acevedo, 2012). 

Specific regions of the brain stimulated by all three phases of romantic love

Scientists have understood the general neurological process of romantic love for quite some time, but they have only recently begun to examine how drug dependence imitates a similar neural mechanism. Repeated drug use stimulates the release of certain neurotransmitters such as dopamine which activates neural networks associated with positive reinforcement or reward (Justinova, 2009). The neural stimulations caused by excessive amounts of dopamine in conjunction with certain cardiovascular effects provide scientists with behavioral evidence to explain symptoms such as euphoria, attraction, and lust (Zou, 2016). 

Despite sharing the same neural pathways, substance abuse and love evoke distinctly different reactions from society. While substance abuse classifies as a pathological disorder, society views love as an integral part of the human experience because it eventually leads to the traditional monogamous relationships that define much of human society. Being in a relationship is a manifestation of the final attachment stage and is characterized by the desirable feeling of comfort, safety and balance. (Song, 2012). On the other hand, drug addiction is associated with the downward spiraling of one’s life and health. Repeated chemical overstimulation has detrimental consequences on the human body including hyperstimulation, stress, and obsessiveness (Zou, 2016).

Image result for love and drug addiction overlap brain

Romantic love and drug addiction activate a few of the same areas of the brain 

As new discoveries increasingly support the idea that love and drug addiction share similar neurological and pathological attributes, scientists are starting to accept the idea that the human brain can perceive love in the same way as an addictive drug. While research is still ongoing regarding the process of “love addiction,” scientists hypothesize that any addiction (including love or sex) emerges from repeated reward. In the case of love, these rewards take the form of comfort, assurance, and stability in a relationship. Since lovers and drug addicts share similar brain chemistry, scientists are starting to identify new pain-relief treatments for drug withdrawal by studying lovelorn individuals. While the mental and emotional pain associated with lost love is considerable, people are generally able to heal a broken heart and move on. Neuroscientists are currently analyzing the aspects of breakup recovery in hopes of developing treatments that mirror the neural networking mechanisms that allows “heart-broken” people to recuperate. So as bad as breakups are, who knew that they could also further scientific progress? 

Edited by Jahnvi Jain

References

Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Fisher, H. E., & Brown, L. L. (2012). Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience,7(2), 145–159. doi:10.1093/scan/nsq092

Earp, B. D., Wudarczyk, O. A., Foddy, B., & Savulescu, J. (2017). Addicted to love: What is love addiction and when should it be treated?. Philosophy, psychiatry, & psychology : PPP, 24(1), 77–92.

Harvard News. (n.d.). Love and the Brain. Retrieved October 13, 2019, from https://neuro.hms.harvard.edu/harvard-mahoney-neuroscience-institute/brain-newsletter/and-brain-series/love-and-brain.

Justinova, Z., Panlilio, L. V., & Goldberg, S. R. (2009). Drug addiction. Current topics in behavioral neurosciences, 1, 309–346. doi:10.1007/978-3-540-88955-7_13

NIDA. (2018, July 2). The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics. Retrieved October 13, 2019, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/media-guide/science-drug-use-addiction-basics

Song, H., Zou, Z., Kou, J., Liu, Y., Yang, L., Zilverstand, A., … Zhang, X. (2015). Love-related changes in the brain: a resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 9, 71. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2015.00071

Wu, K. (2019, February 27). Love, Actually: The science behind lust, attraction, and companionship. Retrieved October 13, 2019, from http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2017/love-actually-science-behind-lust-attraction-companionship/.

Zou, Z., Song, H., Zhang, Y., & Zhang, X. (2016). Romantic Love vs. Drug Addiction May Inspire a New Treatment for Addiction. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1436. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01436

Image References
Fischetti, M. (2011, February 1). Your Brain in Love. Retrieved October 13, 2019, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/your-brain-in-love-graphsci/.

Zou, Z., Song, H., Zhang, Y., & Zhang, X. (2016). Romantic Love vs. Drug Addiction May Inspire a New Treatment for Addiction. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1436. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01436

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