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Math & Science- Feb 14, 2016

Hey Baby, I've Got My Ion You!

We’ve all been there: sweaty hands, butterflies in the stomach and eruptions of nervous giggles. But what is really happening in our body and especially in the brain when we start falling in love with someone? What are the chemicals that go into the love cocktail produced by our brain?

Picture by Juan Cruz Landoni

One of the first things that happens in your body when you meet your crush is that your brain sends signals to your adrenal glands, located just above the kidneys, which cause a sudden adrenaline rush. This has several effects which do not necessarily act in your favour, such as sweaty hands, increased heart rate and dryness of the mouth.

After hopefully managing to overcome the initial stress reactions and nervousness of meeting someone you fancy, your brain will start producing increased levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter which is linked to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Dopamine makes us feel increasingly better by activating as many as five types of different receptors in the brain which connect to the brain’s pleasure system. These dopamine pathways are also modulated by increased levels testosterone or oestrogen, depending on whether you are male or female. Consequently, every time you see – or even think about your special someone, your brain will fire off more dopamine making you feel happy. In other words: when you spend time with your loved one, you are in fact merely “dopamine struck” instead of love struck!

Other hormones that increase feelings of pleasure and contribute towards the brain’s love potion include norepinephrine and serotonin. Together with adrenaline, norepinephrine is thought to produce that feeling of craving and bliss in a long-term relationship. These chemicals seem to encourage us to pursue the relationship by telling our brains to “keep it up!”. Other compounds such as oxytocin, a neuropeptide, is produced in our hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland at intimate moments, which has been shown to have an anti-anxiety effect on us. High levels of oxytocin also reduce stress by reducing blood pressure and improving our moods. A study conducted in Bar-Ilan University showed that new lovers have higher levels of oxytocin in their blood stream than their single counterparts. The study also displayed that couples who stayed together had higher oxytocin levels at the initial period of romantic attachment.

Love is a complex mixture of chemical and biological reactions, so it can definitely be said that, on Valentine’s day, Cupid is aiming his arrows not at our hearts, but at our brains!

Emma Davies is a Millennium Youth Camp alumna, studying microbiology at the University of Helsinki.