Butterflies in the stomach, a lustful mind and sweaty palms - is falling in love down to the heart or chemicals in the head? Star reporter Rachael Clegg visited a Sheffield scientist to find out...

Marysia Placzek, a professor in Developmental Neurobiology at the University of Sheffield
Marysia Placzek, a professor in Developmental Neurobiology at the University of Sheffield

YOU know the signs - racing heartbeat, loss of appetite, thoughts of nothing but the object of your affections.

All this is part of that wonderful phenomenon we call love. Or is it?

Not according to biomedical experts in Sheffield.

Scientific research has shown there are, in fact, several biochemical changes that take place in the brain when we fall in love. And the pounding heart and topsy-turvy stomach are all down to just a handful of chemicals in the brain.

Professor Marysia Placzek of The University of Sheffield’s Biomedical Science department says that, chemically at least, love is meant to be.

“Some scientists have looked at brain scans of people who say they are madly in love, and find there is a particular part of the brain that lights up in these people, seemingly triggered by changes in their body chemistry,” says Marysia.

Scientists believe human behaviour is the same as that of animals as far as ‘courting’ is concerned.

Courtship in animals involves increased energy, focused attention and obsessive following. In humans it’s easy to see how this is played out: we constantly check our phone the time and our emails. If we know they are due at the same party, we constantly check the door.

This behaviour is likely to be caused by a whole cocktail of chemicals that alter as people fall in love.

“An increase in cortisol and a drop in serotonin induces that ‘obsessive’ behaviour associated with being ‘madly’ in love and being unable to think about anything else.”

In the first instances of love, chemicals combine and cause our stress levels to rise - in a good way. A little bit of stress makes us do things we might not otherwise dare to do.

That wonderful glowing feeling we get in the early stages is probably linked to a chemical called dopamine.

“It’s this that is likely to make love a rewarding behaviour and a little bit addictive - it feels good so we want more,” says Marysia.

So could we bottle it and make a fortune selling love potion?

“No way. All the changes are shown in people who simply say they are in love - we have no way of measuring whether they are actually in love,’’ she said.