Brain imaging study sheds light on neural mechanisms underlying romantic relationship maintenance

(ORDO NEWS) — A dopamine-rich area of ​​the brain associated with reward processing plays an important role in maintaining romantic relationships, according to a new neuroimaging study. A study published in the journal Psychological Science found that the accumbens core encodes ideas about romantic partners and non-partners differently.

Researchers Ryuhei Ueda and Nobuhito Abe wanted to use brain imaging techniques to better understand how emotional connection is established and maintained in romantic relationships.

“Since childhood, I have been interested in the mystery of close interpersonal relationships: why and how do people build long-term relationships with a loved one?” says Ueda, assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience at Kyoto University.

“In graduate school, I was introduced to neuroimaging techniques that can tell us about what’s going on in our brains. I realized that providing empirical evidence on these issues would be a difficult but exciting job for me.”

The study involved 46 heterosexual men aged 20 to 29 who were in regular romantic relationships. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record the brain activity of the men during a task in which a successful response resulted in a positive facial image of either their partner or an unfamiliar woman.

Ueda and Abe found that the expectation of a positive response from a partner is associated with a unique activity pattern in the core of the accumbens.

This happened regardless of the attractiveness of women. The obtained results are consistent with the results of previous studies, which showed that the accumbens core plays a key role in the formation of selective preferences for a partner.

“Intimate romantic relationships are an important aspect of life for most people,” Ueda told PsyPost. “Our study provides empirical evidence that reveals the neural mechanisms underlying relationship maintenance: the pleasure and addiction brain center, the accumbens core, codes the relationship partner in a distinct way from unfamiliar non-partners.

We believe that unique neural representations of the relationship partner may be involved in a single romantic relationship.”

“We believe that a longitudinal assessment is needed to reveal how unique neural representations of a relationship partner form and change over time. Selective preference for a particular person can be observed even at first encounters, which may encourage us to initiate a relationship,” said Ueda.

“Little is yet known about the exact neural mechanisms underlying this process. In addition, numerous psychological studies have shown that relationship quality, such as commitment or relationship satisfaction, changes dynamically over time, which should be reflected in neural representations.”

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