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A Scientific Observation of Love and Loss on the Cellular Level

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Dopamine—the same chemical signal that drives us to seek out everything from water to intimacy to cocaine, leaves a lasting imprint on the brains of monogamous animals, a new study reveals.

While the role of oxytocin, also known as the ‘love hormone’ has been well studied in the context of human and animal pair bonding, it’s the reward hormone, or dopamine, that’s responsible for why we desire to be with some people more than others.

Hormones are endogenous chemical signals that drive behavior and organ function, and dopamine is sent into the brain’s nucleus accumbens region as both the metaphorical carrot on a stick and pat on the back for accomplishing a task, whether that’s climbing Mount Everest, or going into the kitchen to get a snack.

In a study that looked at prairie voles, a small rodent that mates for life, scientists at the University of Colorado in Boulder, found that dopamine is also responsible for driving these little animals to want to be with their pair-bonded partners.

“What we have found, essentially, is a biological signature of desire that helps us explain why we want to be with some people more than other people,” said senior author Zoe Donaldson, associate professor of behavioral neuroscience. “This research suggests that certain people leave a unique chemical imprint on our brain that drives us to maintain these bonds over time.”

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