Brave New World: The Dawn of the Anti-Love Drug

Heartbroken. Sadly, we've all been there and it ain't pretty. 

And because we humans are such complicated buggers, that gut-churning, life-sucking, can't-think-about-much-else, I'm obsessed even though you're no good for me love, manifests itself in all sorts of destructive ways. Sometimes we can even spot it in other people—those tell-tale wild eyes, puffy from weeping, or the I haven't returned your phone calls because I haven't left my bed due to my lust-blur . . . and we can only stand by while the storm rages, leaving inevitable wreckage in its wake.

Haven't we all fantasized about love amnesia? That with a swift swallow of a pill you could just. forget. and move on? There's a reason everybody can't get enough of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—memory-erasure is such a tempting dream.

Real-Life Eternal Sunshine

Well, scientists have headed the call and are busy developing medications (not that dissimilar from anti-depressents) which would enable the love-lorn and broken to pick up their pieces and never know they'd been shattered. Of course this surfaces all kinds of too-close-to-dystopia controversy. Altering human memories feels like the stuff of science fiction and brushes up against a delicate system of ethics.

I think we can all agree, however, that there are some instances in which altering ourselves medically is undeniably a good thing. (Like with plastic surgery. Most women I know don't condone botox, fillers and nose jobs, but a child born with a cleft palette? Going under the knife feels like a godsend.) 

A new article in the American Journal of Bioethics is wrestling with just this conundrum. How do we weigh the possibility of ressurection against the dangerous implications of playing God? These are memories after all, not a deformity. While the researchers recognize there is inevitable emotional fallout from any form of intimate relationship, they also point to the possibity of psychopharmacology as a means to combat severely destructive behavior. They also remind us that this war on love-woe has been waged for centuries; bloodletting, phlebotomy and even exercise (imagine that!) were thought to provide a possible "cure."

Sometimes [love hurts] but it may be beneficial, since adversity can lead to personal growth, self-discovery, and a range of other components of a life well-lived. But other times, love can be downright dangerous. It may bind a spouse to her domestic abuser, draw an unscrupulous adult toward sexual involvement with a child, put someone under the insidious spell of a cult leader, and even inspire jealousy-fueled homicide. How might these perilous devotions be diminished? 

They also outline some boundaries for this discussion, listing the "conditions" that pharmacology could help combat:

• Romantic love for someone other than one’s spouse.
• Unrequited love that leads to despair or suicidal thoughts
and behaviors.
• Delusive love, as in erotomania.
• Spurned love that leads to violence or other harmful acts,
such as abuse of children during a marital separation.
• An older person’s uncontrollable sexual attraction for a
• Incestuous love.
• Love for a cult leader.

This is Your Brain on Love

The limbic system of the brain, which governs everything from emotions and motivations to long-term memory, has been long with equated with love and is responsible for bringing—and keeping—human beings together, which in turn has played a crucial role in the survival of our species. In short, we're hard-wired to love—it betters our chances of not being devoured by a bear while we're sleeping because someone is watching over us!

The trickiest part of all of this is parsing out what tiny fractions of the brain are actively plaguing the love-sick person to begin with and solely address that sliver. The correlations between memory and learning new behaviors is complicated; you can physically alter an addicts' brain chemistry, but you can't alter their "circuitry" (all the synapses that have formed with certain memories) without behavioral therapy being used in conjunction.

More complicated still?

Accordingly, biochemical interventions designed to dampen the ungovernable urges of someone with pedophilia, for example, would likely be different from—and work on the brain in a different way than—comparable interventions designed to help an abuse victim sever the emotional connection she has with her abuser. Likewise a "vaccine" that works to prevent unwanted love might differ in meaningful ways from a love "antidote" designed to quell an existing love, which might differ in turn from a memory-erasing drug that could help someone recover from a prior love. 

While "sophisticated nanobiochips and advances in brain imaging will allow for the development of so-called 'neuroceuticals'" were predicted and discussed more than 10 years ago, we're still in the fledgling phases of the results we're looking for. 

Using a bevy of female voles (which are considered "socially monogamous" like us), researchers were able to use oxytocin (a dopamine antagonist that blocks dopamine receptors) to render once monogamous voles . . . totally uninterested in nookie with their formal partner. (Kind of sad-making, right?)

Jury's still out. Are we on the cusp of terrifying totalitarianism (bio-conservatives say, "hell yes!") or just another bright dawn of medical advancements? (bio-liberals holler, "what's up?")

Image: ThinkStock

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