Curing the Lovesick: Biological Anti-Love Interventions

As the phrase “lovesick” might suggest, love has the potential to cause as much damage to an individual’s physical and mental health as a clinical disease. For example, victims of domestic abuse often still feel deep emotional attachment to their partners, which in many cases prevents them from leaving the relationship. When discussing why she didn’t leave her husband after he first began physically abusing her, one assault survivor, Bonnie, said, “I was in shock. I was stunned. But I didn’t leave. A few hours after the incident, Rob broke into tears and told me how sorry he was. I loved him so much, so I believed him when he said it wouldn’t happen again.”[1] Bonnie endured months of sexual and physical assault while living in a “constant state of terror” because of her love for her abuser.[1]

But what if Bonnie and victims like her were able to take a drug that could prevent this harmful emotional attachment, allowing victims to cut ties with their abusers, avoid further abuse, and reduce the emotional toll of ending their relationship? While this kind of anti-love drug may sound like something out of a fantasy or sci-fi novel, a greater understanding of the biochemical pathways that lead to feelings of love could provide options to “treat” lovesick individuals, including domestic abuse survivors and others experiencing problematic forms of love.

In order to discuss these anti-love treatments, it is important to establish a definition for love. While poets and songwriters have been exploring love’s many forms for centuries, Yale psychologist Robert Stenber provides a triangular theory of love that will serve as the lens for this article. He proposes three components of love: intimacy, passion, and commitment.[2] Researchers developing neurochemical anti-love interventions recognize that these components are characterized by separate, though connected, biological pathways that could be targeted by various potential treatments.

The intimacy component of love has been shown to be controlled by a biological pathway similar to that of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). More specifically, patients with OCD and people who had recently fallen in love showed similarly low levels of a protein that transports serotonin, a common neurotransmitter that regulates our mood, appetite, sleep, and other processes. This data suggests that OCD medications that make more serotonin available to the body could be repurposed to reduce romantic attraction.[3]

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“Pills.” by Victor is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Meanwhile, the hormones testosterone and estrogen largely control the passionate lust system. Many treatments are already available to decrease lust, including testosterone reductions which minimize problematic sexual fantasies or sex addiction. Antidepressant medications can also reduce sexual desire, along with tobacco and alcohol.[4] These treatments have been shown to help a group of “self-identifying, help-seeking pedophiles” to diminish their unwanted pedophilic sexual fantasies.[5]

Finally, researchers studying the desire for commitment and long-term relationships have found that the hormones oxytocin and dopamine also are associated with feeling of love in both voles, a type of rodent, and humans. One study found that the partner preferences of voles were reduced by injections of oxytocin/dopamine inhibitors, meaning that they were unlikely to maintain a long-term partnership.[6]

While many of these studies are preliminary, this research does demonstrate that it could be feasible to provide treatments that would reduce harmful feelings of love. There are certainly many types of problematic romantic situations, such as love for someone besides one’s long-term partner, unrequited love, pedophilic attraction, incestuous love, and love for one’s abuser. In many cases, reducing these feelings of love could provide great benefits to an individual’s mental and physical health.

The question of whether anti-love biotechnology is ethical is highly debated and will be explored in greater depth in a later article.

References:

  1. Williamson, B., & McClelland, S. (2006, October 27). When love hurts: The story of an abused woman. Retrieved from https://www.canadianliving.com/life-and-relationships/relationships/article/when-love-hurts-the-story-of-an-abused-woman
  2. Steinberg, R. J. (1986). A Triangular Theory of Love The Triangle of Love. Psychological Review, 93(2), 119–135. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203311851
  3. MARAZZITI, D., AKISKAL, H. S., ROSSI, A., & CASSANO, G. B. (1999). Alteration of the platelet serotonin transporter in romantic love. Psychological Medicine, 29(3), S0033291798007946. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291798007946
  4.  Earp, B. D., Wudarczyk, O. A., Sandberg, A., & Savulescu, J. (2013). If I Could Just Stop Loving You: Anti-Love Biotechnology and the Ethics of a Chemical Breakup. American Journal of Bioethics, 13(11), 3–17.
  5.  Amelung T., Kuhle L. F., Konrad A., Pauls A., Beier K. M. Androgen deprivation therapy of self-identifying, help-seeking pedophiles in the Dunkelfeld. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry. 2012;35(3):176–184.
  6. Young, L. J. (2009). Being Human: Love: Neuroscience reveals all. Nature. https://doi.org/10.1038/457148a
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