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Too Hard for Science? Are There Drugs That Kill Love?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Antidepressants might lift up one’s spirits, but might they break hearts?

In “Too Hard For Science?” I interview scientists about ideas they would love to explore that they don’t think could be investigated. For instance, they might involve machines beyond the realm of possibility, such as devices as big as galaxies, or they might be completely unethical, such as experimenting on children like lab rats. This feature aims to look at the impossible dreams, the seemingly intractable problems in science. However, the question mark at the end of “Too Hard For Science?” suggests that nothing might be impossible.

The scientist: Helen Fisher, research professor in the department of anthropology at Rutgers University.

The idea: Love seems to have three key components, according to Fisher’s renowned studies on the matter — sex, romantic love and feelings of deep attachments. “We’re studying the brain circuits for each of these now,” she explains.

“My feeling is that when you take selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, which are common antidepressants, you might be jeopardizing your ability to fall in love or stay in love or both,” Fisher says. “When you drive up the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, you are highly likely to suppress the dopamine system, and my colleagues and I have clearly found that elevated activity in the dopamine system is linked to one’s romantic feeling.”

“The chemical relationships are much more complicated than this, but some SSRIs in some people seem to adversely affect the dopamine system, and romantic love gets squashed,” she says. “I’ve gotten a good deal of mail from people who’ve said they were in a nice short or long romance or marriage with someone that was going perfectly well, and this person started taking SSRIs, and it not only killed their sex drive, but it also killed their feelings of intense romantic love for their partners. I’ve even had a letter from a doctor in Texas who was prescribed an SSRI and began to realize that he wasn’t loving his wife anymore, and he said he’d rather face major depression than lose his feelings for her.”

“There are people who are truly depressed who do need an SSRI to get through the day, or just to get out of bed in the morning,” Fisher says. “But for the many Americans who may be taking SSRIs but who don’t really need them, I would want to know what the effects on love might be. We know perfectly well that SSRIs kills the sex drive in many people, but no one has studied how these drugs might affect other brain systems linked with romantic love and deep attachment.”

The problem: To properly investigate this question, “you’d really want to follow a great many people throughout an extended period and measure hormone and neurotransmitter activity both before and after they start taking these drugs, and there’s no technology that can really monitor the brain’s neurotransmitter activity in real-time like that,” Fisher says. “And, in the study, you would also have to ask normal, healthy, not-depressed happy people in good relationships to take the SSRI, and I don’t think we would get many volunteers for that. I’m not even sure it would be ethical.”

Although one might want to consider regular blood, saliva or urine tests to monitor levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, “we’ve tried it, and it didn’t work,” Fisher says. “Even if you looked at the byproducts of dopamine in the urine, you don’t know how quickly it was broken down or how much of it remains in the synapse, for instance, or the number of receptors for it on specific neurons in given brain regions, or how different brain pathways interact with one another. You can’t just measure levels of a neurotransmitter — you need an understanding of many brain systems, their complex pathways and their interactions.”

The solution? One might be able to question normal, healthy, non-depressed people daily on how their relationships are doing both before and after they start taking these drugs, “but I can’t imagine many people would want to sign up for this kind of study either, and once again, I don’t think it would be ethical to jeopardize their love affairs,” Fisher says.

“Nevertheless, regardless of the difficulties of studying these neural interactions, I do find it remarkable that the medical community dispenses these antidepressants without any studies to investigate how they might affect related brain systems, particularly such important brain systems as those associated with feelings of romantic love and attachment,” she notes.


If you have a scientist you would like to recommend I question, or you are a scientist with an idea you think might be too hard for science, email me at

Charles Q. Choi About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. deb417 8:19 am 08/3/2011

    I hope a study like this can be done. I took SSRIs back in the 1990s for approximately 6 years. I had to fight doctors to get off them and finally had to wean myself off them b/c my doctors kept insisting I should just keep taking them b/c they wouldn’t harm me and going off might mean a return of the depression. But I’d gone on them b/c of overwhelming grief after the death of a loved-one, and it wasn’t my choice, doctors said it was “recommended” and who was I to question them (kicks self)?

    I instantly lost what had been a healthy sex drive, even in the midst of depression, and it has NEVER returned. I’ve been off them now for over a decade, and STILL have not returned to my former self. I’ve seen doctors, and you know what they say? “You’re depressed, you need SSRIs,” and of course I run screaming from the room. I have no scientific “data” to prove it, but am thoroughly convinced that these drugs had a long-term, possibly permanent effect on me.

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  2. 2. BramptonPatti 11:20 am 08/3/2011

    Great question! It reinforces my thoughts that General Practioner / Family Doctors should not be writing prescriptions for these medications – that should be left to the specialists in the field

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  3. 3. 5:08 pm 08/3/2011

    “Love seems to have three key components, according to Fisher’s renowned studies on the matter — sex, romantic love and feelings of deep attachments.”
    You have left out” A genuine desire for the well being of the loved one”
    I think you are just studying sex, not love.

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  4. 4. Searcher1 5:52 pm 08/3/2011

    I am Bipolar and am constantly adjusting my drug “cocktails” with my mood stabilizers to “even me out”. That includes trying to adjust my levels of seratonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. HOWEVER, I had NO idea nor has any psychiatrist, psychologist or anyone else ever told me that: “When you drive up the neurotransmitter seratonin in the brain, you are highly likely to suppress the dopamine system……….” What!? I thought that seratonin, norepinephrine and dopamine were all separate and distinct. Why would driving up my seratonin suppress my dopamine system!? Why is this the first time I have EVER seen this statement before? I read anything and everything I can get my hands on about this subject. Can anyone explain this phenominen to me?? When was this discovered?? Can you point me to any scientific resources evidencing this?? Any help would be greatly appreciated, Search1

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  5. 5. NOAHFITZPATRICK 12:22 am 08/4/2011

    What do SSRI’s do to Oxytocin levels?

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  6. 6. farandfew 8:16 am 08/5/2011

    Why do you need to test the effect of the drugs in non-depressed people seeing as non-depressed people aren’t going to take them anyway? The question seems to be are depressed people who take the drugs more likely to fall out of love than depressed people who don’t. Why do you need to look at neurotransmitters? Why not just do a simple study to determine if people who take the drugs are more likely to fall out of love than people who don’t? Even if you can’t prove why it happens, what matters most of all is whether it happens.

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  7. 7. bucketofsquid 9:31 am 08/10/2011

    BramptonPatti – After a third attempt by my GP to find an antidepressant that would work for me I demanded a referral to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist said exactly the same thing as the GP and I went through a couple of other meds before we found one that worked. Apparently, without taking samples of brain chemicals, which would be very risky, it is impossible to know which med would work best with the least side effects. Therefore it is all just a crap shoot anyway so why pay the additional cost? – You really need to work on reading comprehension. Romantic love and deep attachments both include a “genuine desire for the well being of the loved one”. If you can’t differentiate between romantic love or strong friendship and sex, you are seriously defective.

    farandfew – It is part of the scientific method. It is far better to know what happens to the nondepressed so when a misdiagnosis occurs it can be identified better and be avoided. Being narrow minded and not caring about how things work and what the risks are may make for cheaper drug development but it certainly isn’t good for the general population or the specific people that get these drugs prescribed to them.

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