All alone. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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. 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.