Brain activity of sex addicts similar to that of drug addicts


Sex addiction is a contentious condition – with many believing that it doesn’t exist. Characterized by an obsession with sexual thoughts, feelings and behaviors, the disorder has been wrought with controversy, recently having been rejected for inclusion in the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

But many experts claim that sex addiction is indeed real, and that there simply hasn’t been enough research conducted on the topic.  Now, a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE aims to fill in that research gap, by imaging the brains of potential sex addicts and comparing them to brain images of patients addicted to drugs.

Overall, the researchers found that in people with sex addiction, or compulsive sexual behavior, pornographic images trigger brain activity similar to brain activity triggered by drugs in drug addicts.

For their study, researchers from the University of Cambridge recruited 19 male patients affected by sex addiction, as well as 19 control patients who did not have the disorder.  According to the scientists, the sex addiction patients had to both exhibit hypersexuality and compulsive behavior in order to be considered.

“The key features are that a person has to be using their addiction excessively, more so in an uncontrolled manner,” lead author Dr. Valerie Voon, a Wellcome Trust Intermediate Clinical Fellow at the University of Cambridge, told FoxNews.com.  “They feel they want to stop it, but they are unable to do so.  The second component is it has a functional impact on their lives and causes significant distress.”

Both groups of patients were shown a series of videos containing either sexually explicit images or sports-related content.  As they watched, their brain activity was monitored through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The researchers found that when the patients with sex addiction viewed pornographic images, they had greater activity in three particular brain regions than that of the control group.  These regions – the ventral striatum, dorsal anterior cingulate and amygdala – are notable, as they are also hyperactivated in drug addicts when they are given drug stimuli.

These brain regions are heavily involved in processing rewards, motivations and assigning importance to certain events.

The researchers also asked the subjects to rank their level of desire while watching the pornographic videos, as well as how much they liked them.  Overall, they found that the patients with compulsive sexual behavior had higher levels of desire towards the videos, but did not necessarily like them very much.  Voon noted that a similar pattern is seen in drug addicts.

“This is important, because desire is an index of wanting something, not because you actually like it, but because you obtain pleasure from it,” Voon said.  “That’s one of the theories of drug addiction; when people are addicted to drugs, they’re working hard for the reward of the drug, but they don’t necessarily enjoy it.”

Voon hopes that the results of his study will add to the limited body of research surrounding sex addiction, as well as inspire more studies to be done in the field.

“It’s not that the disorder doesn’t exist; it’s more that there are not enough studies to classify it and categorize it,” Voon said. “I think that’s the key role behind some of these studies. In order for disorders to be recognized, they need more studies in multiple realms…like this current one.”

Since sex addiction is not included in the DSM-5, it is not known how many people truly suffer from the condition – but the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health estimates that compulsive sexual behavior may affect 3 to 5 percent of the U.S. population.  Voon noted that the condition can lead to severe consequences for patients, as many of the men involved in the study had lost their jobs, were seeking therapy and had suicidal ideations.

Voon hopes their study will help those suffering from a disorder that some consider fake.

“There are a group of people that are suffering from this behavior…and they’re suffering is real and they’re having difficulties controlling it with significant consequences,” Voon said.  “Being able to study it from a neuroscience standpoint allows us to understand it more, but it allows us to highlight that we should be recognizing it is a disorder.”

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