What part of the brain controls attraction?

In this post we are going to answer the question ‘’What part of the brain controls attraction?’’ We will show you the neuroscience of love, how sexual attraction occurs in the brain and all the chemical processes that happen in our body.

What part of the brain controls attraction?

The part of the brain that controls attraction is the frontal lobe with the collaboration of the limbic system. With the help of the frontal lobe, the focus of your attention is focused on what attracts you and you pay much less attention to the rest of the things around you.

The old drive to procreate is necessary for survival and must be wired in our brains. Now, scientists at the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine, in the United States, have discovered an important clue about the neurons involved in that wiring: a small group of neurons that are sensitive to sex hormones in the hypothalamus of the mice are specialized in inducing rodents to “notice” the opposite sex and trigger attraction.

This study, led by Garret D. Stuber, associate professor of Psychiatry and Cell Biology and Physiology, and Jenna A. McHenry, a postdoctoral research associate in Stuber’s lab, identified a hormone-sensitive circuit in the brain that controls the social motivation in female mice.

“These neurons essentially take sensory and hormonal signals and translate them into motivated social behavior,” explains Stuber, who is also a member of the UNC Center for Neuroscience.

The findings, detailed in a paper published in Nature Neuroscience, provide insight into the neural roots of opposite-sex social behavior in mammals and may also be relevant to certain psychiatric illnesses.

“These neural circuits that bypass reward and social processing should also provide important information for disorders that impair social motivation,” says McHenry, first author of the paper.

In the study, Stuber and his colleagues examined the medial preoptic area (mPOA) of the brain. This group of neurons is found within the hypothalamus, an evolutionarily ancient structure in the lower center of the brain.

Previous research showed that mPOA is important for social and reproductive behavior in all vertebrate species studied, from fish to humans, but it is unclear whether this area drives social motivation through circuit connections to reward systems in brain.

The researchers focused on one of the main connections of the mPOA, through which it sends neural signals to another brain structure called the ventral tegmental area (VTA), known to be a powerful contributor to motivated behavior and the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. 

The authors injected into the VTAs of female mice special fluorescent molecules that, like some viruses, tend to move “upstream” along nerve connections.

Neurons specialized in social behaviors

When these tiny beacons reached the mPOA, they ended up highlighting neurons in the VTA that express a gene called neurotensin. 

Analyzes of these neurons in the VTA showed that most of them also express estrogen receptors and therefore are susceptible to rises and falls of ovarian hormones in the fertility cycle of the female mouse, also known as the heat cycle.

The scientists continued to study this specific set of mPOA neurons in live mice, which was a considerable challenge. Microscopy techniques that allow imaging of brain cells in awake mice generally cannot visualize anything deeper than a fraction of a millimeter below the surface of the brain, but mPOA is several millimeters deep.

To avoid this problem, Stuber’s team used tiny tubular lenses connected from their microscope to the mPOA.

Using a technique known as two-photon calcium imaging, he was able to visualize the activity of mPOA neurons in awake female mice. To improve the precision of the technique, the researchers used mice that had been genetically modified so that only their neurotensin neurons could be imaged in the mPOA.

“With our setup, we could take pictures of the mice a couple of times a week and each time find the same cells that we previously recorded brain activity from,” says Stuber.

The team found that when female mice were exposed to the smell of male mouse urine, but not the smell of female mouse urine or other attractive smells, such as appetizing foods, a large subset of neurotensin neurons was stimulated to increase activity. of mPOA.

The researchers also found that these neurons responded more strongly to male mouse urine when female mice possessed high circulating levels of estrogen or a combination of estrogen / progesterone, which arises before the mice become fertile.

“This suggests that certain neurons in the brain may be specialized to prefer social rewards over non-social rewards and that social signal processing is sensitive to circulating hormones,” McHenry summarizes.

Using optogenetics, scientists used light to artificially induce the development of mPOA neurotensin neurons and found that this stimulus induced the release of dopamine from the VTA neurotransmitter in a central structure relevant to the downstream motivation of the VTA.

In standard studies, both male and female mice whose neurotensin neurons in mPOA were thus artificially stimulated displayed a preference for approaching mice of the opposite sex. Overall, the results indicate that these mPOA neurons help drive a potential partner’s social attraction,

“Overall, the data suggest that these mPOA neurons help drive social attraction to a potential partner”

In addition to its fundamental neurological impact, the study has consequences for anxiety, depression, and associated disorders, which can be caused or exacerbated by hormone level changes in certain women.

“Although hormonal changes related to motivation are important for mating or maternal behavior in female mice, some atypical hormonal changes in females appear to underlie reproductive mood disorders, such as postpartum depression,” McHenry adds.

What happens in your brain when you fall in love?

This powerful state, living love, is accompanied by physiological changes that have been carefully studied by neuroscience.

One of the most interesting and seductive proposals is that of the doctor and anthropologist Helen Fisher and her team from Rutgers University (USA), who consider that there are three brain systems related to love that interact with each other: the impulse sexual, romantic love and affection or attachment after a long relationship.

Love, examined

In 1998, she started an investigation with a group of 32 people who declared to be in love who underwent an MRI to see what connections were made in the brain. In those who were in love, they found activity in the ventral tegmental area of ​​the brain, which produces dopamine, and in the caudate nucleus.

Both areas are part of the basic reward system, which is associated with the motivation to achieve goals. 

The area of ​​the ventral tegmental zone in which they found activity is the same that is activated when the person experiences the so-called cocaine high. This indicates that romantic love is not an emotion, but as an impulse, a physiological need of the human being.

A series of brain structures have been developing for millions of years, giving rise to the specialization of neural circuits that make up these three independent and interconnected brain systems. Individual, educational, cultural and social aspects are present in the development of each of them.

According to Fisher, some of the mechanisms that are activated in falling in love are the same in men and women, such as the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area that we mentioned earlier.

However, there are differences: in men, more activity is detected in part of the upper lobe, which is associated with the integration of visual stimuli, while in women the areas that come into play are related to memory and memories.

Three brains to activate

The brain activities that occur when you are in love only happen once in a couple’s relationship, because over time love turns into affection and attachment. Helen Fisher also clarifies why it is said that love is blind. When we are in love, an area of ​​the brain is deactivated. It is a part of the brain amygdala that is related to fear.

That is why we do not see the aspects that we do not like and we accept the rest. She also explains that it is quite possible to feel a deep attachment to a partner with whom one has been a long time and at the same time be madly passionate about romantic love for another person, and, in addition, be sexually attracted to other individuals.

These three brain systems (lust, romantic love, and attachment) are not well connected at the brain level.

But it is impossible to feel madly passionate about romantic love for more than one person at the same time: it is associated with an obsession with one person, and it is impossible to become obsessed with two people at the same time.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the different brain systems that love activates us …

The brain of sexual attraction

A hormonal and cerebral storm is constituted in the most powerful force directed to satisfy the erotic desire. Its objective is the closeness and union of the couple, which will culminate in sexual union, the closest way in which two human beings can be.

This happens by the activation of circuits that carry somatosensory information from the genitals to the brain and thanks to the activation of the hypothalamus, which sets in motion an attraction system through the effect of arousal hormones, adrenaline, and sex hormones, testosterone and estrogens.

Its release is accompanied by a modification of the mood with a feeling of well-being, optimism and euphoria. It is associated with behaviors of anxiety, obsessive or lacking judgment and objectivity in the evaluation of the loved one.

The entire system is triggered by certain stimuli – such as an erotic image -, which is accompanied by an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, metabolic changes that increase muscle capacity, and changes in the blood that increase the disposition of oxygen. Changes in the sexual attraction phase overlap the next: romantic love.

The complexity of love goes beyond the structures and neurotransmitters involved in your experience. However, with the help of neuroscience, we can get closer and closer to deciphering such an abstract concept.

FAQS: What part of the brain controls attraction?

What part of the brain is responsible for love?

When we feel love, our brain activates a specific part, called the striated nucleus. This area is related to the part of the brain that generates sexual desire but, in turn, they are completely separated.

What is the brain chemical responsible for passionate attraction?

The true infatuation seems to occur when phenylethylamine is produced in the brain, which has the ability to increase physical energy and alertness, the brain responds to this compound with the secretion of dopamine, norepinephrine and oxytocin.

Does attraction affect how your brain makes decisions?

Snap romantic decisions on future mates are made by the brain, study shows. Thanks to the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that has just been shown to play an important role in romantic decision-making.

How does attraction happen?

It is the attraction that occurs based on sexual desire or the ability to arouse such erotic desire in another person.

What hormone makes you feel loved?

When in love, oxytocin is secreted (the hormone that allows dilation in labor and breastfeeding, as well as being related to sexual arousal).

In this post we answered the question ‘’What part of the brain controls attraction?’’ We ave shown you the neuroscience of love, how sexual attraction occurs in the brain and all the chemical processes that happen in our body.

If you have any questions or comments please let us know!


Scientists illuminate the neurons of social attraction. (2017). Retrieved January 30, 2021, from ScienceDaily website: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170130133419.htm