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How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Scan The Ways

January 11, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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In Garrison Keillor’s mythical town of Lake Wobegon, there’s a bar called The Sidetrack Tap, “where the pinball machine never tilts, the clock is a half hour slow, and where love never dies.”

In real life, video games long ago supplanted pinball machines, bartenders now keep precise time via their cell phones, and love dies all too often. However, according to new research, it doesn’t have to be that way. Or at least the love part doesn’t. Functional MRI brain scans have revealed that one can stay madly in love for decades—in this particular study, an average of 21 years, which is approximately 10 times as long as both of Britney Spears’ marriages combined.

Two researchers at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York—Bianca Acevedo, PhD, a visiting scholar, and Arthur Aron, PhD, of the psychology department—and two colleagues studied 10 women and 7 men who said they were still intensely in love with their spouses after an average of 21 years of marriage. The subjects’ brains were scanned as they viewed images of their partners’ faces as well as control images, such as those of close friends, highly familiar acquaintances, and less-familiar acquaintances.

The researchers then compared the brain-imaging results with those from an earlier study of 10 women and 7 men who had reported falling head over heels in love within the past year.

“”We found many very clear similarities between those who were in love long term and those who had just fallen madly in love,” said Dr. Aron, as quoted in a Stony Brook news release. He said the scans showed the same areas of the brain lighting up when the subjects gazed upon the faces of their beloveds—key reward and motivation regions of the brain, especially parts of the dopamine-rich ventral tegmental area (VTA).

“In this latest study,” Dr. Aron said, “the VTA showed greater response to images of a long-term partner when compared with images of a close friend or any of the other facial images.”

Dr. Acavedo added: “Interestingly, the same VTA region showed greater activation for those in the long-term-couple group who scored especially high on romantic love scales and a closeness scale based on questionnaires.”

Drs. Aron and Acevedo said the imaging data for the long-term couples suggest that reward value in the brain associated with a new love can be sustained over the long term.

The study also found that relationship length was significantly associated with brain activity similar to that of individuals who yearn for a deceased loved one or experience a cocaine-induced high, suggesting that attachment bonds may have addiction-related properties. And sexual frequency was positively associated with activity in a brain area associated with hunger, craving, and obsession.

The study, published online last week in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, did not address whether, as in Lake Wobegon, all the women were strong, all the men were good-looking, or all their children were above average.

Related seminar: Neuroradiology Review

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