In the brain, sex
addiction looks the same as drug addiction
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[July 12, 2014]
By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) -
Pornography triggers brain activity in sex addicts
similar to the effect drugs have on the brains of drug
addicts, researchers said on Friday - but that doesn't
necessarily mean porn is addictive.
Although there are no precise figures, experts in the field believe
as many as one in 25 adults is affected by compulsive sexual
behavior, more commonly known as sex addiction - an obsession with
sexual thoughts, feelings or behavior they are unable to control.
Excessive use of pornography is one of the main features of the
condition. That can affect personal lives and work, causing distress
and feelings of shame, the researchers from Britain's Cambridge
University said in a study published in the journal PLOS ONE.
The study looked at brain activity in 19 male patients affected by
sex addiction and compared them with the same number of volunteers.
The patients had started watching pornography at earlier ages and in
higher proportions than the 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," said Dr Valerie Voon, who led the study at
Cambridge's department of psychiatry.
"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."
The study participants were shown a series of short videos featuring
either sexually explicit content or sports. Their brain activity was
monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which
uses a blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) signal to measure brain
The researchers found that three regions in particular were more
active in the brains of the sex addiction patients compared with the
Significantly, these regions – the ventral striatum, dorsal anterior
cingulate and amygdala – are also activated in drug addicts when
they are shown drug stimuli, the researchers said.
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The ventral striatum is involved in processing reward and
motivation, while the dorsal anterior cingulate is involved in
anticipating rewards and drug craving, they said. The amygdala helps
process the significance of events and emotions.
The researchers also asked the participants to rate their levels of
sexual desire while watching the videos and say how much they liked
them. Drug addicts are thought to be driven to seek their drug
because they want it, rather than enjoy it.
This process is known as incentive motivation, Voon said, and is a
compelling theory in addiction disorders.
Patients with sex addiction showed higher levels of desire towards
the sexually explicit videos, but did not necessarily like them
"Whilst these findings are interesting, it's important to note ...
that they could not be used to diagnose the condition," Voon said.
"Nor does our research necessarily provide evidence that these
individuals are addicted to porn – or that porn is inherently
"Much more research is required to understand this relationship
between compulsive sexual behavior and drug addiction."
(Editing by Larry King)
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