When so-called “sex addicts” appear on daytime talk shows or in the pages of magazines, talk about the source of their problems often assumes that something is wrong with their sense of self-worth or that they are simply bad, selfish people. Those of us who don’t suffer from sex addiction often wonder why it’s so hard for these people to control their impulses.
New research reported in the latest issue of the journal Biological Psychiatry suggests that compulsive sexual behavior may be caused by dysfunction in a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex.
The study was conducted by Dr. Lique Coolen of the University of Western Ontario and colleagues from Western Ontario and the University of Cincinnati. They found in trials with rats that lesions in the medial prefrontal cortex produced compulsive sexual behavior. Even when the researchers tried to train the rats to associate sexual behavior with negative outcomes, the rats with lesions in the prefrontal cortex continued to exhibit the compulsive sexual behavior.
The rats were still able to be trained to avoid other behavior associated with negative outcomes–only their sexual impulses were affected.
Like other rat studies, this research is promising and suggestive in terms of human psychology, but not conclusive without study of human subjects. The study of compulsive sexual behavior is important not only because people who suffer from it find it troubling, but also because sexual addiction often occurs along with other mental disorders, including drug and alcohol addiction and mood disorders.
At the minimum, this study contributes to the mapping of the brain. The prefrontal cortex, located at the back of the brain, has long been associated with “executive” functions–judgment, planning, decision-making, and adjusting behavior to social norms. The medial prefrontal cortex, a small section of this large area of the brain, appears to regulate the ability to control or act on sexual urges. In future, when celebrities caught in silly sexual scandals are asked why they did it, they may be able to blame their brains.