The news: A study that examined the brains of self-described sex addicts has found remarkable similarities to those who are addicted to drugs and the results may have big implications.
The science: University of Cambridge scientists and others performed brain scans on 19 heterosexual men who had compulsive sexual behaviors and 19 heterosexual men who didn't, with the participants either watching explicit pornographic videos or sports. Two of the participants in the former category had lost their jobs after watching porn at work and four of them said intensive pornography use had led them to escalated behavior such as hiring prostitutes.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers discovered that three sections of the brain (ventral striatum, dorsal anterior cingulate and amygdala) were more active in those who reported compulsive sexual behaviors than those who didn't.
The increased levels of activity mirrored those in drug addicts when they're presented with drugs. The amygdala helps handle emotional and event processing. The ventral striatum helps process reward and motivation, while the dorsal anterior cingulate is linked with anticipation of rewards and plays a role in drug cravings.
Participants in the study who reported compulsive sexual cravings were found to have higher levels of sexual desire towards more explicit pornographic content, even though they did not necessarily enjoy them more. That's also similar to drug addiction, wherein addicts eventually escalate their drug use beyond the point where they enjoy it. They also found more activity in the ventral striatum among the younger patients with compulsive sexual disorders — this may indicate that ventral striatum plays a similar role in the development of compulsive sexual behavior as it does in problematic drug use.
The caveats: OK, so the study did find evidence of shared mechanisms behind troublesome sexual behavior and drug addiction. But it certainly didn't claim that sexual addiction is the same.
"Whilst these findings are interesting, it's important to note, however, that they could not be used to diagnose the condition," lead study author Dr. Valerie Voon said in a statement. "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 behaviour and drug addiction."
Moreover, some professionals in the mental health field assert that our current models of addiction reflect outdated attitudes about human behavior. Researcher Joshua Grubbs from Case Western, for example, believes that perceived pornography addiction is a phenomena mostly affecting religious males who feel guilty about their sexual behavior. Others, like psychiatrist Stanton Peele and neuropsychopharmacologist Carl Hart, have suggested that the social aspects of drug use are underrepresented in current research and that biological models may be insufficient to explain complex human behavior. Some researchers posit that behaviors such as problematic gambling or sex better fit the definition of a compulsive behavior or obsessive compulsive disorder than an addiction.
Still, this study is groundbreaking and suggests that the physiological effects of compulsive behavior in many ways mirror those of drug use.