A team of psychology researchers at Northeastern University discover that the neurotransmitter dopamine is involved in human bonding, linking the brain’s reward system to how we form human attachments. The team studied 19 mother-infant pairs using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), simultaneously. Before performing the scans, the researchers videotaped the mothers at home interacting with their babies and applied measurements to the behaviors of both to ascertain their degree of synchrony. They also videotaped the infants playing on their own.
The research team focused on the neurotransmitter dopamine, a brain chemical that operates in various brain systems to motivate you to work for a reward. The researchers related the mothers’ level of dopamine to her degree of synchrony with her infant as well as to the strength of the connection within a brain network called the medial amygdala network. This network supports social affiliation. The study reveals that social affiliation is a potent stimulator of dopamine, implying that strong social relationships have the potential to improve your outcome if you have a disease. Results also suggest that caring for others, not just receiving caring, may have the ability to increase your dopamine levels. The study insights could affect therapies for postpartum depression as well as disorders of the dopamine system such as Parkinson’s disease, addiction, and social dysfunction.