Study of Brain Activity in Sex Addiction

July 18, 2014
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Out of the many addictions humans struggle with everyday, sex addiction is perhaps taken a little lightly. Many people who are… let’s call them sex enthusiasts, claim the “addiction” quality is a little strong, and that by definition they just have a high sex drive and rationalize a common behavioral habit into something more drastic.

While this has been debated thoroughly, a new study by the University of Cambridge has found that the brain activity in Compulsive Sexual Behavior (CSB) is very similar to that of drug addiction.

The study looked at the brain activity in 19 male patients diagnosed with CSB and compared them to the same number of healthy volunteers. The CSB patients had started watching porn at an earlier age and in higher proportions relative to the healthy volunteers.

Study of Brain Activity in Sex Addiction

The CSB patients were all people that had shown major difficulties controlling their sexual behavior to an extent that had significant negative consequences on their lives and relationships. Behavior-wise, this wasn’t unlike patients with drug addictions, so they wanted to see if the similarities also reflected on the brain.

All the participants were shown videos of sexually explicit content and sports, while their brain activity was monitored. Three brain regions were particularly more active in the people with CSB compared to the healthy ones: The ventral striatum, that processes reward and motivation; the dorsal anterior cingulate, which anticipates rewards and drug craving; and the amygdala, which processes the significance of events and emotions.

The participants were also asked to rate how much they liked the videos and the level of sexual desire they felt while watching them. The CSB patients showed higher levels of desire, but didn’t necessarily rate them higher on the liking scores. The incentive motivation theory is based on the thought that most drug addicts are reported to seek drugs because they want them, not necessarily because they enjoy them. In the patients, desire also correlated with the high interactions between the three previously mentioned regions much more during the sexually explicit videos than during sports, especially compared to the healthy volunteers.

“There are clear differences in brain activity between patients who have compulsive sexual behavior and healthy volunteers. These differences mirror those of drug addicts,” explained Dr. Valerie Voon. “Whilst these findings are interesting, it’s important to note, however, that they could not be used to diagnose the condition. 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 behavior and drug addiction.”

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