Brain Scans Suggest Sex Addiction May Not Be Real Disorder

By: CBS Michelle Castillo (posted by Carissa Fox)
By: CBS Michelle Castillo (posted by Carissa Fox)

Sex addiction may not be a real disorder, according to a new UCLA study.

Researchers measured brain waves in self-reported sex addicts. The scans revealed that their brain's responses when viewing sexual pictures were not indicative of an addiction.

"Potentially, this is an important finding," Nicole Prause, a researcher in the department of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, said in a press release. "It is the first time scientists have studied the brain responses specifically of people who identify as having hypersexual problems."

People are diagnosed with a sexual addiction, or hypersexuality, when they exhibit sexual urges that feel out of control, engage frequently in sexual behavior, have suffered negative consequences because of their sexual behavior and they are unable to stop their behavior.

Prause said these criteria could also indicate high sexual desire, which is not necessarily a disorder.

A previous study in 2012 stated that sex addiction deserved to be in the DSM-5 diagnostic manual; the researchers listed criteria that 88 percent of diagnosed sex addicts fall under. But Prause pointed out that the study did not use any neurological data.

Prause and her team looked at the brains of 52 people, 39 men and 13 women between the ages of 18 to 39. All of them reported problems with controlling their urge to view sexual images. They were asked to fill out four questionnaires that reviewed their sexual behaviors, desires and compulsions. They also were asked to discuss the potential cognitive and behavioral consequences of their sexual behavior. The responses were similar to people who were currently seeking help for sexual addiction.

Then, the subjects looked at different photographs while having an electroencephalography (EEG) scan taken. The EEG measured brain waves, specifically electrical activity in the brain when cells communicate with each other.

Photographs were picked by researchers to evoke pleasant or unpleasant feelings. They included images of dismembered bodies, people cooking, people skiing and sex. Some of the sexual images were romantic, while others showed explicit heterosexual intercourse.

The researchers looked at so-called "event-related potentials," the brain wave changes caused by looking at the photographs. They specifically were interested in the P300 response, which was how the brain responds 300 milliseconds after exposure to the picture. The response at this moment in time -- which has previously used in other addiction and impulsivity studies -- is higher when the person is stimulated by something that's new or interesting to them.

The researchers hypothesized that the more addicted to sex a person was based on the results from the questionnaires, the higher their P300 response would be. However, they discovered that the P300 responses were not correlated to the severity of the person's sexual addiction. Instead, their brain response was linked to their self-reported levels of sexual desire.

"Brain response was only related to the measure of sexual desire. In other words, hypersexuality does not appear to explain brain responses to sexual images any more than just having a high libido," she said.

Robert Weiss, a sex addiction clinician and author, told U.S. News that this study doesn't mean sex addiction isn't a real problem.

"You can't define an addiction by what a person eats, what kind of alcohol they drink or whether they play blackjack or craps," Weiss said. "We look at their life and determine if a substance or behavior is negatively affecting the quality of their life to the point where they need help."

Linda Hatch, a psychologist and certified sex addiction therapist, added to Psych Central that saying sex addiction doesn't exist is just a sensationalist headline. She said that sex addiction is the best and most productive way to describe the symptoms sex-obsessed patients are going through, and that "high sexual desire and "high sex drive" simply do not explain what the patients are experiencing.

Sex addicts' problems stem from their desire to run away from other issues or mask pain, Hatch explained. Just like some addicts turn to drugs to ignore their problems, sex addicts use sexual activity.

"Some of our colleagues argue that the person who struggles with the shame and ravages of sex addiction is simply amoral or irresponsible. This position is totally useless and does nothing to push forward the frontiers of knowledge," she said.

The study was published in Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology in July.
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