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The behavioral, anatomical and pharmacological parallels between social attachment, love and addiction

Abstract

Rationale

Love has long been referred to as an addiction in literature and poetry. Scientists have often made comparisons between social attachment processes and drug addiction, and it has been suggested that the two may share a common neurobiological mechanism. Brain systems that evolved to govern attachments between parents and children and between monogamous partners may be the targets of drugs of abuse and serve as the basis for addiction processes.

Objectives

Here, we review research on drug addiction in parallel with research on social attachments, including parent–offspring attachments and social bonds between mating partners. This review focuses on the brain regions and neurochemicals with the greatest overlap between addiction and attachment and, in particular, the mesolimbic dopamine (DA) pathway.

Results

Significant overlap exists between these two behavioral processes. In addition to conceptual overlap in symptomatology, there is a strong commonality between the two domains regarding the roles and sites of action of DA, opioids, and corticotropin-releasing factor. The neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin are hypothesized to integrate social information into attachment processes that is not present in drug addiction.

Conclusions

Social attachment may be understood as a behavioral addiction, whereby the subject becomes addicted to another individual and the cues that predict social reward. Understandings from both fields may enlighten future research on addiction and attachment processes.

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Acknowledgments

JPB would like to thank his first love for inspiration.

Funding

We acknowledge the funding from MH64692 to LJY, NIH P51OD011132 to YNPRC, and the Emory Scholars Program in Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Research to JPB.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

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Correspondence to Larry J. Young.

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Burkett, J.P., Young, L.J. The behavioral, anatomical and pharmacological parallels between social attachment, love and addiction. Psychopharmacology 224, 1–26 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-012-2794-x

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-012-2794-x

Keywords

  • Social attachment
  • Love
  • Addiction
  • Substance dependence
  • Dopamine
  • Opioids
  • CRF
  • Oxytocin
  • Vasopressin
  • Pair bond