When viewing pornographic material, people with compulsive sexual behavior experience brain activity similar to that experienced by drug addicts, according to a University of Cambridge study appearing in the July 11 edition of the journal PLOS ONE.
The results of the study lend evidence that the condition, which is also known as hypersexuality or sex addiction, should be viewed as a legitimate mental health disorder and considered for inclusion in the American Psychological Association’s handbook of mental-health disorders (the DSM-5), explained Live Science staff writer Jillian Rose Lim.
While the researchers themselves advise that their findings do not necessarily indicate that pornography itself is addictive, as there are observable differences in the in the brains of patients who have been diagnosed with compulsive sexual behavior and those who have not, the study does indicate that members of the former category experienced heightened activity in the same regions of the brain affected when addicts use drugs.
According to BBC News, the Cambridge researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 19 male volunteers while they were viewing pornographic videos, all of whom were described as being obsessed with sexual thoughts and behaviors.
When compared to the brains of healthy individuals, the study authors found that so-called sex addicts had higher levels of activity in three parts of the brain: the ventral striatum, dorsal anterior cingulate and the amygdala, said James Gallagher, health editor of the BBC website. Furthermore, the patients were found to have started watching pornography at earlier ages and in higher proportions than the healthy volunteers.
“The patients in our trial were all people who had substantial difficulties controlling their sexual behavior and this was having significant consequences for them, affecting their lives and relationships,” corresponding author Dr. Valerie Voon explained in a statement. “In many ways, they show similarities in their behavior to patients with drug addictions. We wanted to see if these similarities were reflected in brain activity, too.”
“This is the first study to look at people suffering from these disorders and look at their brain activity, but I don’t think we understand enough right now to say it is clearly an addiction,” she added in an interview with Gallagher. “We don’t know if some of these effects are predispositions, meaning that if you have greater activity in these areas are you more likely to develop these behaviors or if it is an effect of the pornography itself – it’s very difficult to tell.”
UCLA psychologist Rory Reid, who was not involved in the study, told Lim that compulsive sexual behavior is defined as having an excessive preoccupation with sexual intercourse, and using it as a method of coping with stress or difficult experiences.
He called the Cambridge study a significant step forward in associating hypersexuality with addiction, noting that the MRI scans demonstrate that the brains of these individuals “confirm high sexual desire in regions we might expect.” However, he also pointed out that the study does not confirm whether or not sex is addictive, and if these particular individuals have such an addiction.
Additional evidence is required to answer those questions, Reid added. Likewise, Dr. Voon and her colleagues told Live Science that their findings must be replicated, and that further research will be required before compulsive sexual behavior can definitively be identified as an addiction or psychological disorder.
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