Brain scans showed the ventral tegmental area and dorsal striatum lit up when participants looked at their spouse's photo. Prior studies have shown those dopamine-rich regions of the brain, which are associated with reward and motivation, also light up in couples when they first fall in love, as well as when people snort cocaine.
"These people are not just kidding themselves. They seem to be having the same experience as newly in-love people," Aron said.
Long-term, madly in love participants also showed more activation in regions of the brain associated with maternal attachment and pair-bonding, Aron said. Sexual frequency was associated with increased activity of the posterior hippocampus, an area implicated in hunger and craving.
Yet long-term marrieds differed in at least one substantial way from the newly married. Areas of the brain associated with obsession and anxiety lit up less than in scans of new couples. Instead, brain areas associated with calmness were more active, Aron said.
Robert Epstein, a research psychologist in San Diego, Calif., who specializes in love and relationships, expressed some skepticism about the findings. The study involved only a small number of participants, and researchers may have overreached in their conclusions, he said.
Because participants were measured at a single point in time, the study may suggest that it's possible to fall in love again, rather than show it's possible to maintain that "new love" for years and years.
Relationships can go through phases, he said. Happiness tends to dip when couples have children. As the children grow up and leave the nest, some couples experience a relationship rebirth, which may be what's happening with the couples in the study, he said.
"We don't know whether those people were continuously, intensely in love," Epstein said. "What often happens in relationships is people are intensely in love, then things go downhill. Then the kids grow
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