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Sex Addiction Mirrors Drug Addiction In Brain Activity

Last updated Sept. 9, 2015

Approved by: Maulik P. Purohit MD MPH

Researchers from the University of Cambridge have suggested that pornography triggers similar brain activities in individuals with compulsive sexual behavior, commonly known as sex addiction, as individuals addicted to drugs. They also noted that this does not mean that pornography itself is addictive.


Researchers from the University of Cambridge have suggested that pornography triggers similar brain activities in individuals with compulsive sexual behavior, commonly known as sex addiction, as individuals addicted to drugs. They also noted that this does not mean that pornography itself is addictive.

“There are clear differences in brain activity between patients who have compulsive sexual behavior and healthy volunteers. These differences mirror those of drug addicts,” said study author Valerie Voon of the University of Cambridge.

Currently, the diagnosis of sex addiction was rejected by the DSM-V diagnostic tool. Therefore, it is not a disorder, yet. However, the authors of the new study conclude that the same areas of the brain involved in drug addiction are activated when “sex addicts” watch sexually explicit films.

Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers evaluated brain activities from nineteen male patients affected by compulsive sexual behavior and the same number of healthy participants. The patients started watching pornography at earlier ages and in higher proportions relative to the healthy volunteers. 

During the evaluation the participants were shown a series of short videos of either sexually explicit content or sports (as a control). The brain activity was monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which uses a blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) signal.

Three regions in the brain were more active in the brains of individuals with compulsive sexual behavior. The regions - the ventral striatum, dorsal anterior cingulate and amygdala – are particular areas in the brain activated when drug addicts are presented with the drug stimuli. 

The ventral striatum is involved in processing reward and motivation, while the dorsal anterior cingulate is concerned with anticipating rewards and drug craving. The amygdala is involved in processing the significance of events and emotions.

When reviewing the ratings of the participants, it was found that the participants with compulsive sexual behavior rated their sexual desire as being high while watching the videos, but what was not did not necessarily rate them higher on liking the videos, similar to drug addicts.

“There are clear differences in brain activity between patients who have compulsive sexual behavior and healthy volunteers. These differences mirror those of drug addicts,” Dr Valerie Voon, a Wellcome Trust Intermediate Clinical Fellow at the University of Cambridge, says, “Whilst these findings are interesting, it's important to note, however, that they could not be used to diagnose the condition. 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 behavior and drug addiction.”

Additional Resource:

Neural Correlates of Sexual Cue Reactivity in Individuals with and without Compulsive Sexual Behaviours

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: July 13, 2014
Last updated: Sept. 9, 2015