A recently released study on pornography and the brain, led by Dr Valerie Voon, University of Cambridge (UK), confirmed sexual addiction as an identifiable and diagnosable disorder of the brain, and affecting three significant brain regions; the dorsal anterior cingulate (anticipating rewards), the ventral striatum (processing rewards), and the amygdala (processing the significance of emotions and events). The Cambridge study on pornography addiction found that these three brain regions mirror the neuronal excitation as seen in drug addiction.
A study by researchers at the German Max Planck Institute and published in May 2014 in JAMA Psychiatry, found several brain changes associated with the amount of pornography consumed. The study found that higher hours per week, and more years of viewing porn, correlated with reduction in grey matter (brain cells) in sections of the reward circuitry (the striatum). This region of the brain is involved with motivation and decision making. Reduced grey matter in the reward related region means fewer nerve connections. Researchers interpreted the reduction in nerve connections as a result of longer-term pornography consumption.
Lead author Simone Kuhn said – “This could mean that regular consumption of pornography more or less wears out your reward system”.
This is in line with the hypothesis that intense exposure to pornographic stimuli results in down-regulation of natural neuronal responses to sexual stimuli. That could explain why porn addicts are at risk to lose sexual interest in their partners, and why male porn addicts may develop pornography induced erectile dysfunction (PIED).
Researchers confirm that ‘dysfunction of the brain’s reward circuitry is linked to inappropriate behavioural choices, such as compulsive drug/alcohol/gambling/porn/sex seeking, regardless of the potential negative consequences.’ In short, there is evidence of an association between porn consumption and impaired impulse control.
A publication released August 15th 2011 by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) is stating that ‘addiction is a primary chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry, and not simply a behavioural problem involving too much alcohol, drugs, gambling, and sex.
Addiction is characterised by inability to control such behaviours, inability to persistently abstain from such behaviours, severe cravings and chronic relapse, diminished relationship ability, and impaired ability to recognise the significance of their problem.
The National Council On Sex Addiction And Compulsivity classes sexual addiction as ‘engaging in persistent and escalating sexual behaviours, acted-out despite negative consequences to self and others. Untreated sex addicts continue their behaviour despite their awareness of financial, emotional, relational, or physical health damage.
Acting out compulsive sex can be understood as a form of impulse control impairment with ‘self-medicating’ one’s emotional responses to underlying and mostly unaware early or later life trauma, dysphoria, and distress. During sexual preoccupation and activity, various neurotransmitters including dopamine, noradrenaline, endorphins, oxytocin, and serotonin are secreted in larger quantities, generating rewarding feelings of pleasure, relief, relaxation, and elation.
Another psychoactive chemical named phenyl-ethyl amine or PEA is believed to play its role in the biological basis of sexual addiction. PEA is naturally present in states of euphoria and falling in love. Researchers believe that elevated levels of endogenous PEA boost excitement and infatuation, and a sexual addict’s brain may depend on elevated levels of this chemical. PEA functions as a neuromodulator and neurotransmitter in the mammalian central nervous system. Phenethylamine, similar to amphetamine, releases norepinephrine.
In some cases of sexual addiction, underlying Brain Tumours, Epilepsy, Depression, Bipolar Disorder, OCD, ADHD, ASD, BPD, or medication such as agonists designed to manage Parkinson’s disease, may influence sexual behaviour.
Sex Addiction Australia recommends clients should seek advice from a qualified medical health professional if characteristics of their sexual behaviour suggests an underlying mental, or physical, health condition.