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Home » Dave’s DiegesesApril 2005 » Dave’s Diegesis: Neurochemistry in the Time of Cholera

Dave’s Diegesis: Neurochemistry in the Time of Cholera

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Faith, hope, love. But the greatest of these are oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. Serotonin is probably strongest of all. Or perhaps it is vasopressin receptors.

In trying to understand Terry Francona’s almost obsessive attachment to Mike Myers, I sought answers in the realm of neurochemistry. Why is the already feeble human brain, continually wrought with counter-productive emotions such as guilt and self-doubt, subject further to the unpredictable neurochemical chicanery of love? This is the question Helen Fisher, an anthropologist, delves into throughout her research. Fisher defines three stages of love and the associated chemicals that drive the impulses underlying those phases.

The first stage is lust, where the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen play center stage. I’m fairly certain Francona has gotten over this phase since, as we all can see, Mike isn’t much to look at. But, when they initially met, testosterone probably surged. This hormone aids in gaining lean body mass, increasing sex drive, and promoting aggressive behavior.

Second, there is attraction, where you think continually about your object of affection. This is where Francona is at with Myers, I believe. A set of secretions that are both hormones and neurotransmitters, called catecholamines, consisting of dopamine, norepinephrine (similar to adrenaline), and serotonin bombard the brain.

  • Dopamine is found in the areas of the brain that controls movement and balance. The lack of this transmitter is a factor of Parkinson’s Disease. This catecholamine is also a primary actor in the pleasure centers of the brain. Vital activities such as eating and sex are rewarded, but this also engenders the danger of addiction.
  • Norepinephrine causes the increase of heart rate, strengthens the heart’s contractions, opens airways in the lungs, and in general enacts a range of impulses that comprise the fight-or-flight response. This compound mobilizes the sympathetic nervous system to meet a challenging situation, like which LOOGY to call up in the correct situation.
  • Serotonin is the primary mood-elevating chemical. More properly called 5- hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), its original name has its origins in the fact that it was originally thought to be an agent only in vasoconstriction, or decrease in the diameter of blood vessels. However, 5-HT’s effects are far wider ranging, and play a large role in affective disorders and addiction. A deficiency in 5-HT can lead to depression and anxiety. A study has shown that in some cases, the 5-HT levels for infatuated people actually decrease, causing depressive disorders.

Finally, there is the attachment phase where lasting commitment is required, primarily to ensure that the couple bond will last long enough to raise children. Two hormones in particular, oxytocin and vasopressin, are thought to play a role in long-term relationships.

  • Oxytocin is released by during child birth to secrete milk and also fortify the mother-child bond. However, it is also released during orgasm, which Fisher theorizes may intensify adult bonding.
  • Vasopressin primarily directs kidney function, but may assist in forging committed unions. Vasopressin receptors were originally studied in prairie voles, one of the 3% of mammal species that are monogamous. A closely related species that differ by less than 1% genetically, montane voles, are a stark contrast with their cousins, since they are inveterate philanderers. It turns out that the montane voles have no receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin, and therefore building loyal relationships do not affect the reward centers of their brain.

So, love isn’t really a drug, but a complex interaction of neurochemicals that imbue those in our lives with a complex reaction of varying hormonal secretions, dependent upon whether or not the receptors for said chemicals exist. Isn’t it romantic?

(Incidentally, the bitter almond reference in the Marquez quote alludes to a common symptom of cyanide poisoning. Cyanide works by blocking metabolism on the mitochondrial level. You’re not likely to last very long with reduced aerobic respiration. You’ll be able to breathe, but oxygen would not be processed on the cellular level. Glycolysis, or anaerobic metabolism, will continue, and the buildup of high levels of lactic acid (lactic acidosis) that is the by-product of glycolysis can be life-threatening. Lactic acidosis, in conjunction with the shortage of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the universal energy-releasing molecule found in all known living things, make a lethal pairing. Although cyanide targets metabolism, the brain has a high metabolic rate, which makes the poison effectively a neurotoxin. The breath of victims of this poison often have a characteristic almond odor. The huge, energy-consuming human brain, the bane of us all.)

Every Friday, Dave McCarty will join us to discuss a topic of interest to him and probably no one else but the author of this site. Special thanks to Pine Tar Helmet for her insights into the Francona/Myers relationship.


*in tears from laughing* This is probably the best one yet, thought he Bellhorn/McCarty thing was pretty enjoyable too. Good work, Empy!

Disturbing visual images. Thanks!

This blog is a fraud -- the real Dave McCarty of the Red Sox does not write any blog. This comes from the mouth of Dave McCarty himself. Funny blog -- but not written by Dave McCarty.

Please see my disclaimer in the left column of this page, Anonymous, before you call this blog a fraud. It's not a wheel, it's satire.

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