TIME Sex

Intimacy Addiction Looks Similar to Drug Addiction, Study Finds

Watching porn triggers similar brain activity as drug exposure, study says

There’s still debate over whether sex addiction exists, but a new study on porn and the brain provides more evidence that consuming explicit material is addicting. The new study, published in the journal PLOS ONE shows that sex addiction, scientifically known as compulsive sexual behavior, may actually be similar to drug addiction in the brain.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge’s department of psychiatry discovered that watching pornography triggers brain activity similar to what drug addicts experience when they’re shown drugs.

In the study, the researchers looked at 19 men with compulsive sexual behavior and 19 healthy men. The participants either watched sexually explicit videos or sports while the researchers monitored their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

The imaging showed that three regions of the brain—the ventral striatum, dorsal anterior cingulate and amygdala—were more active in the men with compulsive sexual behavior compared to the healthy participants. Interestingly, these are the same areas stimulated in drug addicts when they’re shown drugs. The ventral striatum helps process reward and motivation and the dorsal anterior cingulate is involved in anticipating rewards and drug cravings. The amygdala processes events and emotions.

After watching the videos, the participants also rated their level of sexual desire and how much they enjoyed the videos. Previous research has shown that at a certain point, drug addicts use their drug of choice because they need it, and not necessarily because they like the feeling. As the researchers expected, the patients with compulsive sexual behavior reported higher levels of desire towards the sexually explicit videos even though they did not necessarily like them more. Their desire was also correlated with higher interactions between the three areas of the brain during the explicit videos than for the sports.

The men with compulsive sexual behavior also reported starting to watch pornography at earlier ages, and they consumed it at a higher rate than the healthy group. The researchers noticed that younger participants—particularly those with compulsive sexual behavior—had greater levels of activity in the ventral striatum after watching pornography. This, the study authors believe, suggests the ventral striatum is involved in the development of compulsive sexual behaviors like it is in drug addiction. Since people’s brains continue developing into their mid-20s, teens often take more risks and are more susceptible to impulsive behavior.

Despite the findings, the investigators still caution against making any conclusive leaps until more research is done. After all, the study sampling was small, and there’s still disagreement over whether sex is really addictive.

“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,” lead study author Dr. Valerie Voon, a Wellcome Trust Intermediate Clinical Fellow at Cambridge, said in a statement. “Much more research is required to understand this relationship between compulsive sexual behaviour and drug addiction.”

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