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Your Love Is My Drug: The Science Of A Broken Heart

Valentine’s Day is around the corner, and we know what that means. Cheesy cards and too many heart-shaped candies, yes, but also, possibly: a break-up.

According to an analysis of Facebook statuses, the weeks following Valentine’s Day mark one of the most common periods during the year to end a relationship. A break-up at any time is miserable, but perhaps a scan of the latest brain science might ease some of the agony. Maybe.

(Nicholas Raymond/Flickr)
(Nicholas Raymond/Flickr)

NPR recently dove into this topic and took a look at some psychological therapies for a broken heart. But what about chemical, neurobiological and other treatments? Could a brain implant for a broken heart be in your future?

First, a quick look at the chemicals driving our desire to please, the yearning for our lovers and our addiction to love. Many of us are familiar with the euphoria associated with the feeling of being in love, and its counterpart, the crushing grief that can accompany a break-up.

When a romantic relationship ends, our brains work tirelessly to rewire our associations with our ex-lovers.

Similar to cases of drug addiction, falling out of love can entail a physically and emotionally painful withdrawal period. In fact, addiction to another person appears to parallel drug addiction anatomically and functionally. In a 2012 review of social attachment, love and addiction, researchers identified numerous areas of neurological overlap between love and other drugs.

Not only do we utilize some of the same neurotransmitters and regions of our brain to maintain these addictions, the researchers found, but we also exhibit the same “reward-seeking” behavior when we do not get our fix. The difference (or at least one difference) is that love is a socially acceptable form of drug addiction.

From the review:

Like those who fall in love, those who are exposed to drugs of abuse also experience powerful feelings of reward and euphoria that lead to reinforcement of drug-taking behavior. This reinforcement drives drug users to seek out more experiences with drugs, which can lead to strong addictions. Addicts are also willing to sacrifice in order to obtain and consume drugs; however, those exact same self-sacrificing behaviors that we see as romantic and laudable in the context of parental or romantic love, are seen as dangerous and self-destructive in the context of drug addiction.

In recent years, neuroscientists have investigated techniques such as drug therapy and Deep Brain Stimulation to treat addiction, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and depression. If love neurologically resembles these pathological conditions, is it possible then to also treat a broken heart with electrodes and drugs?

A Chemical Romance

Like two randomly colliding hydrogen atoms in the sun, sometimes two people, by chance or events more serendipitous, create a bond together. Through an inexplicable and intense attraction, they fuse into something entirely new. What does being in love look like? How can we quantify what has historically been regarded as the pinnacle of human emotion?

Dr. Helen Fisher, a researcher at Rutgers University, is renowned for her work on the neurobiology of love and divided the love phenomenon into three subsystems: lust, attraction and attachment. See her talk about it here:

Our relationship with love is a complex one; It’s a biochemical cocktail rushing through our brain as neurotransmitters and the rest of the body as hormones in our blood.

In a 2013 review, "If I Could Just Stop Loving You: Anti-Love Biotechnology and the Ethics of a Chemical Breakup," researchers report: “The attraction system promotes focused attention, intrusive or obsessive thoughts about the object of desire, feelings of exhilaration, and so on, and is associated primarily with adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin.”

Love As Pathology

In other words, the attraction system governs that overwhelming compulsion to be with our lovers and drives those grandiose gestures to please. It oversees the sometimes irrational, often impulsive things we would do for love.

Researchers wrote in a 1999 study on the neurobiology of attraction, “…being in love literally induces a state which is not normal.” They found that “honeymooning” lovers, in the early stages of romantic love, presented lower serotonin levels compared to controls, a chemical imbalance also observed in patients with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Love is, in many respects, a pathology in itself, the researchers say: “Attraction is characterized by an altered mental state with mood elation resembling the hypomanic phase of a bipolar disorder and we would suggest that it might be underlied by the same neurochemical abnormalities, such as increased functioning of the norepinephrine and dopamine systems….”

This Is Your Break-Up Brain 

So what happens when a romantic relationship suddenly ends? What happens when we can no longer get our fix of love? Anyone who has been through a sudden break-up knows that it’s near impossible to simply cut loose from love’s snare although the relationship has ended. Thanks to low levels of serotonin (and other chemical systems being thrown out of whack), recent dumpees continue to obsess over their ex-lovers, experiencing increased stress, anxiety and risk of depression.

I experienced all of this recently after a break-up: I was unable to sleep, eat or watch anything remotely sentimental. Also, I obsessively checked my phone, clinging to some hope that my ex would text. I processed it all with friends and family, but still, I was overwhelmed by stress, anxiety and grief.

Dopamine levels, too, plummet after a break-up. Although the relationship has ended, we still yearn for, and are conditioned to expect, love from that specific person. I know I did. For my sinking mood that became laced with additional anxiety and mild depressive symptoms, I was prescribed a common SSRI (a serotonin selective reuptake inhibitor). Though that may not be the path for everyone, the medication did work for me.

For individuals who continue to struggle with depression, OCD and addiction, Deep Brain Stimulation may offer a new therapeutic alternative. In DBS, still very much an experimental therapy, electrodes are implanted in the brain and send controlled electrical impulses to targeted regions. Brain implants for severe depression are also beginning to show some promise.

Implanting a device to mend a broken heart is certainly not ready for prime-time — yet. But Dr. Larry Young, a leading expert on the neurobiology of love and bonding, believes that at least in the context of major depression, DBS could benefit bereaved partners:

“Certainly Deep Brain stimulation in the prefrontal cortex prevents depression. [DBS treatment after the loss of a loved one] is possible. If you think about bereavement and grieving after the loss of a lover, it uses some of the very same underlying mechanisms of depression.” Put simply, he said in an interview: “Techniques that treat depression would also treat bereavement and grieving.”

The Stress of Loss

When one loses their partner, either literally or symbolically, he or she experiences an increase in corticotrophin-releasing factor. The CRF hormone stimulates our stress response, but in excess, CRF has been linked to depression.

At Emory University, Dr. Young studies prairie voles, which are notably monogamous. Dr. Young and his colleagues observed that after the loss of a partner, the remaining vole’s adrenal glands enlarge, secreting greater amounts of CRF hormone. To counteract this chemical imbalance, researchers administered a CRF receptor antagonist to the grieving voles. This drug competes against the CRF protein in binding to the CRF receptor, thus stunting CRF’s overall potency.

Dr. Young said that he thinks one day a CRF receptor antagonist drug for humans could help partners struggling with the loss of a loved one:

I think that [a CRF antagonist drug] is plausible because that’s what we did in voles. When we gave the voles CRF antagonists when they lost their partner, they didn’t become depressed. So, if you extrapolate that to people, there’s the possibility you could also block this system in people, and they would not become depressed.

Love And Illness

When it comes to tough break-ups, time alone may not heal all wounds. But it's good to know there are other options out there, and maybe, after all of this Valentine's hoopla, we can start focusing on mending these broken hearts of ours.

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