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Still Madly in Love? Brain Scans Can Explain

Brain Scans Reveal Similarities Between Those Who Just Fell in Love and Long-Married Couples
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Jan. 14, 2011 -- Couples can still be intensely in love even after many years of marriage and experience the same types of intense romantic feelings as people who have recently fallen in love.

That’s the key conclusion of a new study in which scientists at Stony Brook University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of long-term married couples and compared the images to those of men and women who’d recently fallen in love.

Researchers scanned the brains of 10 women and seven men who said they were still intensely in love with their spouse after an average of 21 years of marriage.

Seeing Love in a Face

The participants viewed facial images of their partners and images of a close friend, as well as that of a person whose face was not all that familiar. Brain activity was measured while participants looked at the images.

Next, the scientists compared the fMRI results of long-term partners with those from an earlier study that used the same scanning methods with 10 women and seven men who reported that they’d fallen madly in love just within the past year.

The scans showed “many very clear similarities between those who were in love long-term and those who had just fallen madly in love,” Arthur Aron, PhD, of Stony Brook’s department of psychology, says in a news release.

Dopamine and Love

The dopamine-rich region called the ventral tegmental area “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,” Aron says.

Dopamine-rich regions are considered feel-good areas. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasures related to sex, music, and even good food.

Colleague Bianca Acevedo, PhD, says the ventral tegmental area “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.”

The researchers say their study is the first to image and analyze “neural correlates” of people in long-term romantic love, and might offer clues as to why couples stay in love.

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