Love Potion #1: New drug could control love’s presence
For those looking for love, a recent scientific discovery may soon help guide Cupid’s arrow
Published: Friday, February 13, 2009
Updated: Friday, February 13, 2009 10:02
This time of year, people of all ages are either on Cloud Nine, dismissive of the consumerist event called Valentine's Day or constructing voodoo dolls of past significant others.
For those who fall into the category of love haters, a new drug that can make people fall in and out of love is in the early stages of testing, and its development may be a one-way ticket to controlling romantic emotion.
The idea for this drug — and prospective vaccine — is based on the research of neuroscientist Dr. Larry Young. Young worked with animals called prairie voles, which are among the small minority of mammals — less than five percent — who share humans' propensity for monogamy.
When a female prairie vole's brain is artificially infused with oxytocin, a hormone that produces neural rewards comparable to those created by substances such as nicotine and cocaine, she will quickly become attached to the nearest male. A related hormone, vasopressin, creates urges for bonding and nesting in male voles.
The research also revealed that male voles with a genetically limited vasopressin response were less likely to find mates. Young's corresponding research found that men with a similar genetic tendency were less likely to commit.
Theoretically, if used to its fullest potential, the drug could effectively harness these chemicals and be used to make people experience emotions of love. Conversely, it could also be used to prevent people from feeling such sentiments simply by receiving an injection of the substance.
But the process isn't as simple as a quick oxytocin or vasopressin booster or blocker, according to Sheldon Krimsky, professor of urban and environmental policy and planning.
"In animal studies, we can manipulate these things at a chemical level. [But] animals don't have a culture, history, established relationships or live in complex environments," Krimsky explained. "You cannot assume that what you get from the controlled experimental system will translate to a human level. Who you are going to love and mate with is a complicated situation that cannot be pinned down to a hormone shift."
Even if Young were able to construct a drug that worked perfectly for humans, there are a number of ethical questions that come into play when dealing with an emotion as fragile and peculiar as love.
The implications of the drug could be as simple as putting the spark back into a dull marriage and getting over a tough breakup; concerns could be immense, however, if the drug's power fell into the wrong hands.
"I don't think you can exploit other people's emotions like that," freshman Kavitha Narra said. "I'd rather it develop naturally and know that the person actually likes me back."
Krimsky does not support the vaccine either.
"Love is so complicated, and there always seems to be an inexplicable X factor," he said. "The idea of trying to reduce it to some kind of chemical potion or to a list of shared beliefs is nonsense. It doesn't work. If we don't have a concept for what love is for an animal, how can we take it from an animal source and translate it to something so nuanced as human love?"
He explained that if the vaccine does enter the clinical picture, deciding how and when to use it will still be a major decision.
"[Just because] a vaccine makes people fall in love, [it] doesn't mean they will have a good relationship," he said. "It would be some kind of strange science fictional world if we could create a vaccine that facilitated marital bliss … there is no way to create simple solutions to such extreme complexity."
That extreme complexity is something humans experience everyday, whether it be with falling in love for the first time or struggling to keep a marriage alive.
"A vaccine that can make people fall in and out of love goes against everything we are taught to believe about love," freshman Emily Cox said. "[Modern philosopher] Erich Fromm says that our deepest desire is to overcome our prison of separateness. If we don't, we'll go insane. We need love more than we need anything else. Take that ability away, and we lose our purpose as people. Conversely, if love is as easy as a poke in the arm, we lose the journey and struggle to obtain it, and then is it really worth having?"