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Is love possible without serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine?

This question originally appeared on Quora. Answer by Yohan John, PhD in Neuroscience.

Neurotransmitters are clearly involved in emotions, but we really don’t know how exactly they contribute. We can, however, say the following:

  • Dopamine is not the pleasure chemical
  • Serotonin is not the bliss chemical
  • Oxytocin is not the love chemical

How can we make these claims? Because we know that these chemicals are involved in far more that what pop science suggests.

Consider the following observations:

Dopamine drugs do not always produce pleasure of euphoria. Just ask someone who takes adderall. Adderall contains amphetamines, which enhance the effect of dopamine (and norepinephrine). Adderall and other amphetamines sometimes produce euphoria, but they can also just produce extreme focus — that’s why they’re prescribed for attention disorders like ADHD.

Parkinson’s disease initially reveals itself as a disorder of movement: it can cause tremors and difficulty initiating movements. It is caused by a reduction in the number of dopamine-releasing neurons in the brain. Some treatments involve elevating the dopamine levels. But others involve a completely different approach. Deep brain stimulation of the subthalamic nucleus (whose cells are not dopamine neurons) can help alleviate tremor.

The key point is this: there may be more than one way for a particular process to be achieved in the brain.

Serotonin is very poorly understood. But one observation is quite striking. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are drugs than enhance the amount of serotonin in the synapse. They are typically prescribed for depression. Their effects on serotonin are quite rapid, but their psychological effects typically take weeks to show up. Clearly it is not the serotonin per se that is elevating the depressed patient’s mood. One idea is that it takes a few weeks for serotonin to change the connections between neurons, and that it is the connections that mediate mood and other psychological phenomena, rather than the neurochemicals.

Oxytocin has also been hyped to a potentially harmful degree. It can increase both positive and negative feelings, so clearly its role in social behavior is quite complex.

More broadly, there is no reason to assume that the level of some neurochemical is the cause of a particular behavior or emotion. The overall pattern of electro-chemical activity in the brain seems to be a more likely medium for emotion and behavior than the “ chemical soup ”.

So “love” (a broad concept that is very hard to study in a lab) might be affected by neurotransmitter levels, but we have reason to believe that there are multiple causal roads that can take us there.

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