Similarities found between drug and sex addictions

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Scientists have discovered that drug and sex addiction may be two characteristics of the same neurological coin.

The observation of explicit sexual content by diagnosed sex addicts triggered similar brain activity to that which is observed in drug addicts. However, researchers have issued warnings that this is not suggestive of pornography being addictive.

The lead scientist from Cambridge University, Dr Valerie Voon, said that the patients who participated in the trial all experienced difficulty in controlling their sexual behaviour, which in turn had consequences which affected their lives and relationships.

Dr Voon said they indicated many similar behavioural patterns to patients who were addicted to drugs. The team wanted to determine if the similarities were indicated in their brain activity as well.

She stated that there were clear distinctions in brain activity between healthy volunteers and patient with compulsive sexual behaviour, and the differences mirrored the brain activity of drug addicts.

Previous studies indicated that one in 25 adults may be affected by obsessive sexual thoughts, behaviour or feelings, which they are not able to control.

Public awareness of this problem has in the past been raised by celebrities who have opted for professional help, including actors David Duchovny and Michael Douglas.

The scientists at Cambridge recruited 19 male sex addicts to watch short videos which featured either people engaged in extreme sports, such as sky diving and skiing or explicit pornographic scenes. During the screening, the brain activity of the men was monitored by using a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner. This experiment was repeated with a matching group of volunteers not affected by sex addiction.

It was discovered that three sections of the brain were more active in the brains of the sex addicts, compared to those in the healthy volunteers. The regions affected were the amygdale, dorsal anterior cingulated and ventral striatum. All three regions are also known to be activated in drug addicts who are stimulated when shown drug-taking equipment.

The anterior cingulated and ventral striatum are involved during the processing and anticipation of rewards, whilst the amygdale aids in the establishment of the importance of emotions and events.

Participants were requested to rate their level of sexual desire whilst watching the videos and how much they liked it.

As was expected, the sex addicts indicated higher levels of desire whilst watching pornography, however, they did not always place the explicit videos in a higher position on their ‘liking’ sheets.

It was found that younger participants had increased activity in the ventral striatum when watching the pornographic videos and this response was strongest among the sex addicts.

The scientists indicated that the frontal control regions of the brain act as a braking mechanism on extreme behaviour and it continues to develop into the mid-twenties. They believe that this may account for the greater levels of risk-taking and impulsivity in younger people.

Dr Voon stated that while the findings are interesting, they cannot be used in diagnosis for the condition. She stated that the research also does not provide evidence of porn addiction in the individuals, or that porn is addictive. She added that more research is necessary to try and understand the link between drug addiction and compulsive sexual behaviour.

The Wellcome Trust funded this research and their head of neuroscience and mental health, Dr John Williams, said that compulsive behaviours, such as overeating, gambling and excessive viewing of porn, are becoming increasingly common.

He said that this particular study moves one step forward in discovering why humans continue repeating behaviours that they know are a danger to them. He added that whether sex addiction, eating disorders or drug addiction is being tackled, knowing when and the best method of intervention to interrupt this cycle are an important goal of this study.

Image Credit: Toni

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