Sex Addiction Works Like Drug Addiction in Brain, Study Finds

Posted on December 16th, 2014

Sex Addiction Works Like Drug Addiction in Brain, Study FindsSex addiction is believed to exist by many experts, but has yet to be officially recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (the DSM) due to a lack of research. Now, a new study may have provided a core piece of evidence: researchers investigating the effect of viewing sexually explicit videos on the brains of those with compulsive sexual behavior have found evidence that brain regions become activated that are also implicated in drug addiction. The study may offer hope for official recognition of the condition in the future, but also provides evidence for the incentive-motivation theory of addiction as a whole, as well as potentially opening up new avenues for treatment.

The methodology of the study was fairly straightforward: two groups of men—19 with compulsive sexual behavior and 19 without—were shown a series of video clips (some sexually explicit, some erotic and some neither, such as clips of sporting events), and their brain activity was observed using MRI scans. The researchers also asked the participants to rate how much they enjoyed the video and how much it increased their sexual desire. The participants with compulsive sexual behavior had experienced numerous issues as a result of their problem, including damaged relationships, lost jobs and excessive amounts of money spent on things like escorts. None of the participants were regular drug users, although one participant in each group used marijuana infrequently.

Sex Addicts Show Brain Activity Similar to Compulsive Drug Users

The core finding of the research was that three brain areas (the ventral striatum, the dorsal anterior cingulate and the amygdala) were activated considerably more when those with compulsive sexual behavior viewed sexually explicit video clips in comparison to those without the condition. These brain regions are implicated in the anticipation of rewards; they’re central to the processes of motivation and craving, and have also been found to be activated when drug users anticipate using substances. As would be expected, the same response was not observed when they watched videos of sports. In short, those with sex addiction have the same neurological response when viewing sexually explicit videos as you’d see in drug abusers thinking about using drugs. This is a key piece of evidence that sex addiction works in the same way as other, more strongly established addictions.

Incentive Motivation and Addiction

For the participant-rated section of the study, those with compulsive sexual behavior rated their sexual desire as being high when watching explicit videos, but didn’t rate themselves as liking the videos any more than the group of healthy, non-addicted participants. This seems paradoxical, since you’d expect somebody who was addicted to a behavior to enjoy it more than somebody who isn’t, but the finding seems to fit well with the incentive-motivation theory of addiction.

The incentive motivation theory states that for people suffering from addiction, the “wanting” is more crucial than the actual “having” of the desired behavior or substance. The idea came from the simple observation that people dependent on substances strongly crave their substance of choice, but don’t actually experience much pleasure while taking it. The theory is that the “wanting” part becomes “sensitized” (in other words, intensified) while the actual pleasure from the substances remains the same. The other elements of existing theories of addiction—like both genetic and environmental factors influencing susceptibility—fit right into the framework as before, except that that the susceptibility is to the increased craving for substances rather than to their effects themselves.

More Evidence for Sex Addiction and Potential New Treatments

The finding is interesting in an academic sense for the prevailing theories of addiction, but the most important element is the uncovering of neurological mechanisms for sex addiction. The researchers on this study are keen to point out that the finding doesn’t necessarily provide evidence that porn is addictive or that the individuals studied are addicted, but the observed similarity with drug addiction is a strong indicator. With the neurochemical effects of sex and pornography, and the clearer picture we’re getting of the physical mechanisms at play, it seems only a matter of time before the issue is well defined and ready for inclusion in the next DSM.

For those who will struggle with the condition in the future, the researchers also point out that the mechanisms uncovered could provide hope for a biomedical intervention to help treat the condition. This will be quite some time away, of course, but it’s the first step down a road that could lead to a physical treatment. Counseling is destined to continue to play an integral role, but anything offering hope for additional help is cause for celebration. Also, if further findings support the incentive-motivation model for addiction, it could become a turning point for how we approach psychological treatment for all addictions.

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