They say "romantic love" was invented by the troubadors of the Middle Ages. They also say it doesn't last. But Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher and colleagues reported today that functional brain imaging studies show that being "in love" transcends both culture and time.
The researchers imaged the brains of 17 young Americans and 17 young Chinese who had been in intense love relationships for 6 months. The team compared how the volunteers' brains reacted to a photograph of a loved one versus a photo of someone they didn't know. When viewing a loved one, the brains of the volunteers registered activity in "several regions associated with addiction," said Fisher--notably in the ventral tegmental area, a region of the brain stem that are rich in receptors for dopamine, the chief actor in the brain's "reward circuit".
The team also rounded up 17 people of both sexes, aged 40 to 65, married at least 20 years, who said they were still "in love" with their spouses. The researchers found that the same areas were activated in most of them on viewing a photo of their spouse. But longterm romantic love also stirred up brainstem regions rich in serotonin (see pic) and a chemical called vasopressin, which is associated with monogamy in voles. The upshot is that the long-marrieds have the best of both worlds--they are still in love, but the "the obsession, mania and anxiety" of newly-hatched infatuation "is replaced by calm," said Fisher.
"We now have physiological evidence that romantic love can last," said Fisher triumphantly. "It now appears from this study that romantic love exists not only to initiatie pair-bonding but to maintain and enhance long-term relationships."