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.
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.
Why Love Lasts
The scans showed very similar brain activity in both groups in brain regions associated with reward, motivation, and what the scientists described as “wanting.”
Acevedo and Aron say that while romantic love is a mystery, and maintaining it may never be fully understood, the study provides evidence and possibly clues to what may be essential activity in the brain for love to last.
The study also found that:
Greater closeness with a partner was associated with activity reflecting reward and motivation, as well as of awareness.
Relationship length was strongly associated with activity of the ventral and dorsal striatum areas. The activity was similar to that seen in people who yearn for a deceased loved one or who experience cocaine-induced highs.
Sexual frequency was positively correlated with activity of the brain region known as the posterior hippocampus in an area previous studies have shown to be involved in craving and hunger, in addition to obsession.
Aron is investigating whether the study results can be used to help save the marriages of soldiers returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Also, the researchers write that the study may have practical applications, “suggesting that educational and therapeutic programs for long-term married couples may be able to set higher standards.