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Feeling blue on Valentine's Day? Fixing heartbreak with science is possible - but risky

Can science cure a broken heart? In theory, yes - but the side effects can be rather unpleasant.

Although difficult to singularly define, love seems to be a main cause of our longevity in the evolutionary rat race. Romantic love is seen as a "primary motivation system - a fundamental human mating drive". Yet, of course, heartbreak is always lurking in the shadow of love, ready to pounce.

Heartbreak, like any adversity, at times can be beneficial: it can lead to "personal growth, self-discovery, and a range of other components of a life well-lived," as the authors of a 2013 paper exploring the science of love put it. At other times it can be downright dangerous, leading people to struggle with depression, stress, domestic abuse and suicidal or delusional thoughts. Yet, as science advances, so does its ability to manipulate the natural mechanisms that underly the human body, including our feelings of love and heartbreak.

Ancient medical cures for a broken heart were creative and widely diverse - according to medical historian Nancy Dzaja, they included everything "from herbal remedies to the prescription of sexual intercourse, to drinking water that had been boiled in the desired person’s underwear". Today, homeopathy is perhaps the only one of these traditional medicines still in use, and despite the lack of any evidence that it works better than a placebo, many organisations (including the NHS) endorse homeopathic remedies for some maladies.

However, modern neuroscience and psychopharmacology are finding ways of "curing" broken hearts that might actually work, and there have been several recent studies which address the possibility of using “anti-love biotechnology” as a treatment for the ill effects of love sickness. Anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University has researched extensively on what neuroscientists call “psychobiological love”, and has argued that it can be broken into three interconnecting stages: lust, attraction and attachment. Each one has its own chemical cause, and its own possible chemical cure - which in turn comes with their own ethical implications.

Curing lust

Lust is driven by the sex hormones testosterone and oestrogen, and methods of blocking them from acting are already available - for example, antidepressant medications (especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs), androgen (i.e. testosterone) blockers, and oral naltrexone (which is normally prescribed to treat alcohol addiction).

2013 study in the American Journal of Bioethics looking at the ethical issues of using drugs to prevent lust found that “libido-reducing effects commonly follow from direct or indirect regulation of testosterone levels”, and that it’s “the most important determinant of sexual desires and actual behaviours, particularly in men”.

However, blocking testosterone has a range of side effects. There's vomiting and depression, but the complete loss of all sexual interest or feeling explains the common name for this what happens when trying to kill off lust: chemical castration.

Curing attraction

This is usually where the honeymoon phase is - where couples are constantly on each other’s mind, count the number of kisses in a text and can’t decide who will hang up the phone.

In the attraction stage a group of neurotransmitters (called “monoamines”), such as serotonin, adrenaline and dopamine are important for regulating mood. And, if it wasn’t already obvious, the attraction stage resembles symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder.

Anti-depressant drugs that boost serotonin levels can offer relief to OCD sufferers. Donatella Marazziti, a professor in psychiatry at the University of Pisa, compared the brain activity of 20 couples who have been madly in love for less than six months with 20 subjects with OCD. She discovered the serotin levels of new lovers were similar to those found in OCD patients - and suggested that OCD medication could alleviate some of the symptoms of a broken heart.

Curing attachment

Couples would probably explode if they stayed in the attraction phase forever, so eventually it fades and the attachment phase takes over. This is possibly the strongest phase, as it means you’ve passed the test of attraction and can now form a longer-lasting commitment.

Two hormones released by the nervous system are important here: oxytocin and vasopressin. Animal studies have shown how we can manipulate these hormones to sever emotional attachments, including in creatures that famously mate for life like the prairie vole. Larry Young, a professor in psychiatry at Emory University, found that by injecting female voles with a drug directly into the brain that blocked oxytocin or vasopressin they become polygamous. Young said "the mechanisms we’re tapping into in voles may also be responsible for those feelings we have of when we’re with a loved one" in a discussion at the DNA Learning Center. If we were to legally solicit a drug that depletes oxytocin levels it would have the consequences of not only severing romantic love, but all relationships.

So, will anti-love drugs be a thing in the future? Probably - but, to go back to the 2013 study in the American Journal of Bioethics, the idea brings with it challenges to “the importance of autonomy and consent in considering whether (or when) to address instances of ‘perilous love’ through pharamacological means”.

The authors conclude: "The science of love and sexuality is still in its very infancy. However, as our understanding of the biological and neurochemical bases of lust, attraction, and attachment in human relationships continues to grow, so will our power to intervene in those systems - for better or for worse."

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era