November 27, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

We can all admit to being, on occasion, slaves to our emotions. But what if we could medically alter and regulate our most basic feelings? Be prescribed a pill to love, an inhaler to feel anger, or a topical lotion for loneliness?

Neuroscience is starting to better understand the hard-wiring of our emotions. And one currently being untangled is love. For example, studies of the brain show that the outset of romantic love displays similarities to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Most recently, research has been investigating the plausibility of tinkering with our neurobiology in order to enhance attachment and commitment in marriages.

Nearly 40% of marriages end in divorce, while in the US divorce has surpassed death as the major cause of marital break-up. Blame can been placed with factors such as social and environmental changes for couples in contemporary life. However, could it also be due to our own biological and psychological make-up, forged into our natures by the Darwinian fires of evolution?

Evolutionary biologists have calculated that throughout the majority of our history, a human individual’s maximum life expectancy has been 35 years, meaning that at least 50% of adult partnerships would have ended within 15 years. This figure – surprisingly close to the current median marriage duration of 11 years – might mean that we haven’t evolved to sustain such long-term monogamous relationships. But what if we had a pharmaceutical arsenal at our disposal to battle this evolutionary hitch?

Research into the mating habits of the monogamous prairie vole and the polygamous montane vole has uncovered two hormones, vasopressin and oxytocin, that appear to encourage pair-bonding activity. In fact, when scientists introduced a vasopressin receptor gene from the prairie vole into the brain of its more promiscuous counterpart, the montane voles became monogamous. Similarly, an experiment conducted on humans using oxytocin (affectionately known as “the cuddle hormone”), demonstrated that when couples were administered an oxytocin nasal spray there was a significant increase in positive communication.

Other hormone components – such as dopamine and testosterone – are still being studied, but if we were one day able to manufacture “love drugs” to boost our psychobiologies, would it be ethical to do so? In a recent paper, it was discussed how the chemical neuroenhancement of a committed relationship should be permitted on the grounds of liberty and responsibility.

A successful marriage is known to boost physical and emotional health, as well as longevity, so why shouldn’t couples be allowed to undergo counselling accompanied by a drug treatment? An analogy being the case of chronic depression, whereby a patient may undergo therapy alongside the prescription of antidepressants such as Prozac. Furthermore, there is a responsibility in the upbringing of children, with a 25-year landmark study demonstrating the long-lasting damage done to the children of divorce.

However, there are also many potential dangers. As funny as it sounds, without careful control individuals might become addicted to love. There could be application to the wrong relationship: attempting to put a chemical band-aid on a broken or violent marriage, or the use of such drugs to imprison an unwilling participant in a relationship. Furthermore, would this render relationships inauthentic, condemning them to the product of pharmaceutical design?

No matter what your opinion, it is certainly impressive that we are on our way to deconstructing one of our most fundamental emotions. Whether it is ethical to reduce it to pill-form, is another matter. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll have completely unravelled the spectrum of our emotions into a shopping list of hormones and neurocircuitry.

Image: flickr | Barkaw