Feb 14, 2024 - News

Love on the brain: How true connection leaves a lasting chemical imprint on the cranium

Illustration of a heart and brain overlapping to create a venn diagram

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Love leaves a chemical imprint, or "biological signature of desire," on the brain, according to new research by University of Colorado Boulder neuroscientists.

Details: Researchers analyzed prairie voles — among the 3-5% of mammals known to mate for life — to learn how human brains form long-lasting bonds, and how they get over those bonds once broken.

  • Voles were tasked with overcoming an obstacle to reach their partners as a tiny fiber-optic sensor tracked their neuroactivity. When the fuzzy creatures reconnected with their lovers, the sensor detected a dopamine spurt and lit up like a glow stick.
  • The glow beamed steadily as the pairs snuggled and sniffed each other, but dimmed when they were apart or introduced to a random vole.

What they're saying: "This research suggests that certain people leave a unique chemical imprint on our brain that drives us to maintain these bonds," Zoe Donaldson, senior study author and associate professor at CU Boulder, said in a statement.

A photo of two prairie voles and five of their babies cuddled up together.
Photo: Courtesy of University of Colorado Boulder

Yes, but: When vole couples were reunited after being separated for a month (an "eternity" in rodent years), their signature dopamine spark all but disappeared.

  • "We think of this as sort of a reset within the brain that allows the animal to now go on and potentially form a new bond," signaling hope for the heartbroken, Donaldson said.

The big picture: Researchers hope that by dissecting what healthy bonds look like within the brain, new therapies can emerge to help people struggling to connect with others or move past their grief — leading to a less lonely and much happier world.

The bottom line: Rihanna was a few years ahead of science.

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