WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Could a pill or a squirt up your nose save your marriage? Maybe, according to a researcher who is studying the chemical basis of that most elusive of emotions -- love.
Larry Young says his ultimate quest is not a high-tech love potion but to shed light on serious conditions like autism, which affects the ability to form social attachments, by studying brain chemicals involved in emotional attachment.
"Biologists may soon be able to reduce certain mental states associated with love to a biochemical chain of events," Young, of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, wrote in the journal Nature.
His study of prairie voles has shown that a quick dose of the right hormone can drastically alter relationships.
The cute rodents are a good model for human relationships, Young said. Unlike many other animals, they form lifelong pairs and raise their young together.
But this behavior is easy to change, Young says.
"It's a chemical reaction. At least in voles we know that if you take a female and place her with a male and infuse her brain with oxytocin, she will quickly bond with that male," he said in a telephone interview.
Taking away her natural levels of oxytocin -- a hormone involved in labor, nursing and social bonding -- means she will reject a male as a mate no matter how many times she physically copulates with him.
"Experiments have shown that a nasal squirt of oxytocin enhances trust and tunes people into others' emotions," Young wrote in the Nature article.
"Internet entrepreneurs are already marketing products such as Enhanced Liquid Trust, a cologne-like mixture of oxytocin and pheromones designed to boost the dating and relationship area of your life," he wrote.
Young sees a potential role in fixing damaged marriages.
"If we could maybe use a drug in combination with marital therapy, that may be desirable," he said.
Young is also convinced that love does not boil down to one single hormone. Other studies have shown that differences in a gene called major histocompatibility complex, which affects the immune system, may be involved in initial sexual attraction. For males, the hormone vasopressin appears to be more important.
But it is clearly biological. "I think love in humans evolved to draw us together," he said.
Which means feelings of love likely exist in other animals.
"Any mammal, when the mother has babies, they are bonded to those babies and would do anything to protect those babies. That is an ancient brain chemical that is ubiquitous, and stimulates the bond," he said.
Humans -- and perhaps prairie voles -- have evolved to use that mechanism to stimulate pair bonds, Young believes.
"Either way, recent advances in the biology of pair bonding mean it won't be long before an unscrupulous suitor could slip a pharmaceutical 'love potion' in our drink. And if they did, would we care? After all, love is insanity," he wrote.
Reporting by Maggie Fox; Editing by Julie Steenhuysen and David Storey