What’s Love Got to Do with Treating Mental Health Disorders?

Date: Dec 8, 2021

Shaun Golden was in the back of his friend’s pickup truck, driving to a University of Georgia (UGA) tailgate 10 years ago — and he saw Julie walking down the street. “I literally jumped off the truck,” he says, making sure he could finally talk to her.

As a couple, he and Julie finish the story together, exclaiming, “We started talking, and it hasn’t stopped!”

Along with four other couples, the Goldens share moments from their relationships in “Love,” the first episode of the recent season of “Your Fantastic Mind.” With relationships ranging from one month to decades old, their stories help demonstrate exactly what happens in your brain when you fall in love — and how that insight can help researchers at Emory find potential treatments for a variety of mental health disorders.

Can’t Help Falling in Love

“Falling in love is in many ways becoming addicted to another person,” says Helen Fisher, anthropologist and neuroscience researcher at the Kinsey Institute. “This is not an emotion — it’s a drive — it’s a basic mating drive that evolved millions of years ago to start the mating process.”

Fisher wanted to find out more about what happens to your brain when you’re in love. Using brain scanners, her team showed people photos of their partners and watched what parts of the brain activated. They all showed activity in what Fisher calls a “tiny little factory” called the ventral tegmental area, or VTA.

“That is a brain region that actually makes dopamine,” Fisher says, “and then sends dopamine to many brain regions, giving you that focus, the motivation, the craving — even the obsessive thinking — to win life’s greatest prize, which is a mating partner.”

Brant and Brian Rawls-Mcquillan describe the pull of attraction. “When you lose yourself to somebody else, there’s a certain amount of craziness that goes with it in the fact that you are no longer in control necessarily of all your emotions.”

Jill and John Rossino have been married 40 years and met as reporters in Little Rock, Arkansas. “I saw her on the air,” John says, recalling the way he felt for Jill, “and I said I really like that woman. She’s pretty sweet.”

Jerry Katz expresses a similar feeling when he encountered Martha Jo the first week she was at UGA. “I was attracted to her almost immediately, and that’s why I invited her back to the fraternity house.”

Researching Relationships

Neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry Larry Young, PhD, studies prairie voles — small hamster-sized rodents — at Emory University, and how their relationships are like ours. Like humans, voles have monogamous relationships and form family bonds.

“I’ve been studying these voles because I want to understand the biochemical and brain mechanisms that help us form social relationships,” Young explains.

“There’s something irresistible about their partner,” Young says. His team’s research found that voles that can form bonds have the receptors for the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin in the parts of the brain that are involved in reward and addiction.

“We think this pair bond is very similar to addiction; the animals are becoming addicted to their partner,” he says.

Young’s research also explores how some voles are less likely to form social relationships when they lose a parent early in life.

“From monogamy to shared parenting to nurturing, the answer to what makes these tiny creatures so similar to us is found in the brain,” Young remarks.

Creating Connections

Using virus technology, Young and his team can choose to stop oxytocin or vasopressin receptors in the voles. This causes the voles to no longer want to bond. They have also enhanced the receptors in meadow voles, which do not usually bond, and made them more monogamous.

“We were able to transform the brain of those that cannot form a bond by putting the gene for the receptors into those areas,” says Young. Suddenly, those voles started to be able to form bonds.

This research has a powerful impact. Young’s work suggests that even something as complex as forming a relationship has a chemical nature. As a result, his research helps us understand our own connections to one another — and shows that molecules like oxytocin could play a significant role in addressing autism and certain mental health disorders.

“The most important aspect of our work is the understanding that this molecule helps us process social information and tunes us into the social world,” he says. “That gives us a way to be able to enhance perception of the social world, and that is very useful in disorders like autism.”

The molecule that helps voles form bonds could improve quality of life for many people, helping people with autism, schizophrenia, or other mental health disorders.

“What helps attract us to each other, what helps us stay together could help people around us create connections we take for granted,” says Young.

To learn more, visit Emory Healthcare’s wide range of mental health services that includes specialized care to best fit your needs. Start to feel like yourself again. For more information, call 404-778-5526.

About Your Fantastic Mind

Emory University and the Emory Brain Health Center have partnered with Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) on a television series, “Your Fantastic Mind,” which features compelling stories about brain-related health and wellness.

“Your Fantastic Mind” began airing Season 3 in November 2021 on GPB’s statewide television network. The Emmy-winning news magazine-style show highlights patient stories and reports on cutting-edge science and clinical advances in neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry, sleep medicine and rehabilitation medicine.

To watch complete episodes of Your Fantastic Mind, visit emoryhealthcare.org/yfm.

Seasons 1&2 of “Your Fantastic Mind” examined topics including how COVID-19 can affect the brain, sleep apnea, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, PTSD, Huntington’s disease, migraines and video gaming disorder, which has been designated a mental health disorder by the World Health Organization.

Seasons 1&2 of “Your Fantastic Mind” examined topics including how COVID-19 can affect the brain, sleep apnea, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, PTSD, Huntington’s disease, migraines and video gaming disorder, which has been designated a mental health disorder by the World Health Organization.

Jaye Watson is the show’s host, writer and executive producer. She is an Emmy- and Edward R. Murrow award-winning veteran Atlanta journalist and video producer for the Emory Brain Health Center.

Emory Brain Health Center

The Emory Brain Health Center uniquely integrates neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, rehabilitation medicine and sleep medicine and transforms patient-centered care for brain and spinal cord conditions through research and discovery.

Bringing these specialties together allows more than 400 researchers and clinicians from different areas to collaborate to predict, prevent, treat or cure devastating diseases and disorders of the brain more rapidly. These collaborations are demonstrated in numerous centers and programs across the Brain Health Center, including the Epilepsy Center, Pituitary Center, Stroke Center, Treatment-Resistant Depression Program and Veterans Program.

Emory’s multidisciplinary approach is transforming the world’s understanding of the vast frontiers of the brain, harnessing imagination and discovery to address 21st century challenges.

Learn more about comprehensive, diagnostic and innovative treatment options at the Emory Brain Health Center.

Schedule your appointment today.

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