Study: Romantic love associated with reduction of gray matter density in the striatum

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Being in a romantic relationship can physically alter the structure of your brain, according to a study published last November in Frontiers in Psychology.

The structure of the human brain is subject to change with life experience, specifically the grey matter. Grey matter is the darker coloured tissue in the brain (compared to white matter) and it consists mainly of nerve cell bodies. As romantic love is one of the most powerful experiences for humans, it is possible that being in a romantic relationship is complemented by alterations to the structure of the brain.

A part of the brain known as the striatum is involved in the reward system of the brain. When an individual is presented with pictures of their loved one it activates this reward system. People who are alcohol dependent or who are addicted to cocaine (which also activates the reward system) have reduced grey matter density in the striatum. This is thought to be due to an enhanced response to reward and a lack of mental control. This lack of control is seen in people in romantic love just as in people who are addicted to cocaine, suggesting that the brains of people who have an addiction or who are in love could share common striatal structures.

The study, conducted by a team of researchers lead by Hiroaki Kawamichi (National Institute for Physiological Sciences, Japan) involved taking an MRI scan of 113 student participants. Most of the participants then went on to complete the Subjective Happiness Scale (SHS) which is a measure of how happy or unhappy an individual is.

The results found that people in a romantic relationship reported themselves as happier compared to people who were not in a relationship. The authors state that ‘being in a romantic relationship enhances perceived subjective happiness via positive experiences’. Additionally, the study found that people who were in a romantic relationship had reduced grey matter in the right striatum, which is thought to be a result of the positive experiences and social reward that come from being in a romantic relationship.

The results confirm the idea that being in a romantic relationship can cause structural alterations to the human brain and that people who are in a romantic relationship perceive themselves to be happier than those who are not.



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