The neural mechanisms and circuitry of the pair bond


Love is one of our most powerful emotions, inspiring some of the greatest art, literature and conquests of human history. Although aspects of love are surely unique to our species, human romantic relationships are displays of a mating system characterized by pair bonding, likely built on ancient foundational neural mechanisms governing individual recognition, social reward, territorial behaviour and maternal nurturing. Studies in monogamous prairie voles and mice have revealed precise neural mechanisms regulating processes essential for the pair bond. Here, we discuss current viewpoints on the biology underlying pair bond formation, its maintenance and associated behaviours from neural and evolutionary perspectives.

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Fig. 1: Individual variation in oxytocin receptor expression in the nucleus accumbens confers resilience to neonatal neglect.
Fig. 2: A neural model of pair bond formation.
Fig. 3: Schematics illustrating selected processes proposed to be involved in pair bonding on the basis of our model.
Fig. 4: The corticotropin-releasing factor system and oxytocin interact to maintain the pair bond.


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Preparation of this manuscript was supported by US National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants R01MH096983, R01MH112788 and 1P50MH100023 to L.J.Y. and P51OD11132 to the Yerkes National Primate Research Center (YNPRC). The authors thank K. Inoue for his contribution to the manuscript.

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Nature Reviews Neuroscience thanks A. Bonci, O. Bosch and R. Froemke for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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H.W. and L.J.Y. researched data for the article and made substantial contributions to the discussion of content and to the writing, review and editing of the manuscript before submission.

Correspondence to Larry J. Young.

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Humans and their ancestors following separation from the Pan clade.

Sociosensory information

Any form of sensory information (for example, olfactory, visual, tactile and auditory) perceived from a social source, typically a conspecific.

Alloparental behaviour

Parental nurturing behaviour (for example, retrieving, licking and grooming) exhibited towards a non-descendent infant or juvenile.

Odorant coding

The transduction of odours into distinct neural signals in the olfactory bulb and downstream pathways, which enables an organism to distinguish complex odours and associate an odour or its source with reinforcers.

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Walum, H., Young, L.J. The neural mechanisms and circuitry of the pair bond. Nat Rev Neurosci 19, 643–654 (2018).

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