Featured Open Neuroscience Articles Psychology 7 min read Pornography triggers brain activity in people with compulsive sexual behaviour — known commonly as sex addiction — similar to that triggered by drugs in the brains of drug addicts, according to a University of Cambridge study published in the journal PLOS ONE.
However, the researchers caution that this does not necessarily mean that pornography itself is addictive. Although precise estimates are unknown, previous studies have suggested that as many as one in 25 adults is affected by compulsive sexual behaviour, an obsession with sexual thoughts, feelings or behaviour which they are unable to control.
Excessive use of pornography is one of the main features identified in many people with compulsive sexual behaviour. However, there is currently no formally accepted definition of diagnosing the condition. In a study funded by the Wellcome Trust, researchers from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge looked at brain activity in nineteen male patients affected by compulsive sexual behaviour and compared them to the same number of healthy volunteers.
The patients started watching pornography at earlier ages and in higher proportions relative to the healthy volunteers. We wanted to see if these similarities were reflected in brain activity, too.
In the patients, desire was also correlated with higher interactions between regions within the network identified — with greater cross-talk between the dorsal cingulate, ventral striatum and amygdala — for explicit compared to sports videos. The study participants were shown a series of short videos featuring either sexually explicit content or sports whilst their brain activity was monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging fMRI , which uses a blood oxygen level dependent BOLD signal to measure brain activity.
The researchers found that three regions in particular were more active in the brains of the people with compulsive sexual behaviour compared with the healthy volunteers. Significantly, these regions — the ventral striatum, dorsal anterior cingulate and amygdala — were regions that are also particularly activated in drug addicts when shown drug stimuli. The ventral striatum is involved in processing reward and motivation, whilst the dorsal anterior cingulate is implicated in anticipating rewards and drug craving.
The amygdala is involved in processing the significance of events and emotions. The researchers also asked the participants to rate the level of sexual desire that they felt whilst watching the videos, and how much they liked the videos.
Drug addicts are thought to be driven to seek their drug because they want — rather than enjoy — it. This abnormal process is known as incentive motivation, a compelling theory in addiction disorders.
As anticipated, patients with compulsive sexual behaviour showed higher levels of desire towards the sexually explicit videos, but did not necessarily rate them higher on liking scores.
Dr Voon and colleagues also found a correlation between brain activity and age — the younger the patient, the greater the level of activity in the ventral striatum in response to pornography. Importantly, this association was strongest in individuals with compulsive sexual behaviour.
The age-related findings in individuals with compulsive sexual behaviours suggest that the ventral striatum may be important in developmental aspects of compulsive sexual behaviours in a similar fashion as it is in drug addictions, although direct testing of this possibility is needed.
Nor does our research necessarily provide evidence that these individuals are addicted to porn — or that porn is inherently addictive. Much more research is required to understand this relationship between compulsive sexual behaviour and drug addiction.
This study takes us a step further to finding out why we carry on repeating behaviours that we know are potentially damaging to us. Whether we are tackling sex addiction, substance abuse or eating disorders, knowing how best, and when, to intervene in order to break the cycle is an important goal of this research. University of Cambridge press release Image Source: The image is credited to Nick Olejniczak and is adapted from the University of Cambridge press release.
Lapa, Judy Karr, Neil A. Published online July 11 doi: Here, the processing of cues of varying sexual content was assessed in individuals with and without CSB, focusing on neural regions identified in prior studies of drug-cue reactivity. Ratings of sexual desire and liking were obtained.
Relative to healthy volunteers, CSB subjects had greater desire but similar liking scores in response to the sexually explicit videos.
Exposure to sexually explicit cues in CSB compared to non-CSB subjects was associated with activation of the dorsal anterior cingulate, ventral striatum and amygdala. Functional connectivity of the dorsal anterior cingulate-ventral striatum-amygdala network was associated with subjective sexual desire but not liking to a greater degree in CSB relative to non-CSB subjects.
The dissociation between desire or wanting and liking is consistent with theories of incentive motivation underlying CSB as in drug addictions. Neural differences in the processing of sexual-cue reactivity were identified in CSB subjects in regions previously implicated in drug-cue reactivity studies.
The greater engagement of corticostriatal limbic circuitry in CSB following exposure to sexual cues suggests neural mechanisms underlying CSB and potential biological targets for interventions.
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