Is Love Different Across Sex and Orientation?

Is what I experience when I feel love qualitatively different from what a man experiences? Or what a lesbian may experience? If I consider Semir Zeki’s hypothesis that literature and art across the ages show a common substrate for love in the mind, I might suggest that descriptions of sex by male and female authors and artists are sometimes different.

In response to the passing of Amendment One in North Carolina and President Obama's recent comments supporting same-sex marriage, I've included a short excerpt about sexual orientation and the brain from my book, Dirty Minds:  How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships:


Is what I experience when I feel love qualitatively different from what a man experiences? Or what a lesbian may experience? If I consider Semir Zeki’s hypothesis that literature and art across the ages show a common substrate for love in the mind, I might suggest that descriptions of sex by male and female authors and artists are sometimes different. But descriptions of love by writers of both genders? They aren’t all that dissimilar.  Nor are those written by gay authors.

Although previous neuroimaging studies of romantic love by Zeki and Fisher included members of both sexes, a precise comparison of brain activation between the two was not undertaken. Nor were comparisons of heterosexual and homosexual love. Zeki and his collaborator John Paul Romaya decided to take a closer look to determine whether there were differences in the way these different groups experience love.

They compared cerebral blood flow in twenty-four people in committed relationships who claimed to be passionately in love (and scored high enough on a passionate love questionnaire to back that claim). Twelve of those participants were men, and six of those men were gay. The remaining group of twelve women was also made up equally of gay and straight women. The study paradigm was identical to Zeki’s initial romantic love study: each participant’s brain was scanned as he or she passively viewed photos of his or her partner and a familiar acquaintance matched in gender and age to their true love.

Zeki and Romaya found similar patterns of brain activation and deactivation across all participants, replicating the findings from Zeki’s original romantic love study. Once again measurements of cerebral blood flow support the idea that love is both rewarding and blind. But there were no significant differences between activation patterns in men and women, nor between gay and straight individuals. Considering the sexual dimorphism seen in many parts of the brain, it’s an intriguing result. It appears that love is love, no matter what gender or sexual orientation you are.

When I asked Zeki if he was surprised by the finding, he chuckled. “To be honest, I was entirely agnostic,” he said. “I cannot say I was surprised by the results. But I think this is one of these studies where people would have said, ‘I’m not surprised,’ even if the results had gone the other way.”

Credit:  Peshkova/Shutterstock.com

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.