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Brain Activity in Sex Addicts Similar to Drug Addicts

A new study using magnetic resonance imaging found many similarities in the brains of subjects addicted to sex and drugs.

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By Victoria Kim

07/17/14

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Does compulsive sexual behavior, commonly known as sex addiction, alter brain activity similar to drug addiction? Why yes, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The University of Cambridge research team, lead by neuropsychiatrist Dr. Valerie Voon, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe the brain’s response to videos depicting explicit sex. They compared the brain activity of 19 men affected by compulsive sexual behavior (CSB) with the brain activity of the same number of healthy volunteers, or the control group.

In a detailed questionnaire and psychiatric interview to determine those with CSB, the men in the CSB group reported spending 25% of their time online viewing porn, more than five times that of the control group. “The patients in our trial were all people who had substantial difficulties controlling their sexual behavior and this was having significant consequences for them, affecting their lives and relationships,” said Voon in a press release. “In many ways, they show similarities in their behavior to patients with drug addictions. We wanted to see if these similarities were reflected in brain activity, too.”

The researchers found that certain brain regions that are also activated in drug addicts responding to drug stimuli were more active in the brains of the men in the CSB group compared with the control group. “There are clear differences in brain activity between patients who have compulsive sexual behaviors and healthy volunteers,” Voon said. “These differences mirror those of drug addicts.”

The study suggests there could be a shared brain network associated with many compulsive disorders, whether they involve drugs or sex.

However, Voon emphasized that the study’s results do not necessarily mean that pornography is inherently addictive. “Much more research is required to understand this relationship between compulsive sexual behavior and drug addiction,” Voon said.

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