Is Sexual Addiction Real? Scans Of Sex Addicts' Brains Make Researchers Question The Disorder

 @TreyeGreen t.green@ibtimes.com
on July 24 2013 8:09 PM
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A new study completed by researchers at UCLA determined that the brain responses of self identifying sex addicts to sexual imagery did not mirror the responses of drug addicts to images of drugs. Reuters

With the recent revelation of new text messages and racy images sent between Anthony "Carlos Danger" Weiner and another female that isn't his wife, questions about the legitimacy of sexual addiction have once again burst into the discussions the New York mayoral candidate's latests infidelity confession. 

Though scores of people have blamed sexual addiction for destroying their relationships or leading them to spend large amounts of money to fulfill their desires through online adult sites, a recent study from the University of California, Los Angeles is challenging the growing belief that sex addiction is a mental disorder similar to other addictions. According to the researchers there is actually no scientific evidence that proves that sexual addiction actually exists. 

The new study, published in the psychiatric journal Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), was the first of its kind, reports Popular Science. It looked to determine if neural responses to sexual images could be predicted based on the symptoms of hyeprsexuality. This information would help determine if sex can be viewed as an addictive behavior much like the use of drugs. 

The research team studied the brain activity 39 men and 13 women who identified as "having problems controlling their viewing of sexual images." They all agreed to have their brain activity measured through an EEG -- the scalp hookups used to measure the activity of brain neurons. 

This group of individuals was shown both sexual and non sexual images designed to bring out pleasant and unpleasant feelings. The photos included: images of dismembered bodies, people skiing as well as people having sex, reports TIME. 

The study resembled those done on drug addicts to study how their brains respond to images of the drugs that they crave. 

The brain-wave patterns researchers focused on happened about 300 milliseconds after the participants looked at an image, known as p300. They pinpointed this specific time frame since the electrical response of the brain to stimuli usually reaches its peak at that moment. Previous p300 studies have shown that drug addicts were more intrigued by drug related pictures than any other images they were shown.

Though most researchers had previously believed that the brain response of sex addicts would mirror those of people suffering from other addictions, researchers discovered a surprising outcome to the sex addicts brain chemistry changes. 

Instead of noticing a higher brain response when the participants were exposed to sexual stimuli, unlike drug addicts, the sex addicts didn't view the sexual imagery as any more intriguing than the other images they were shown.

“They look just like normal people with high sex drive,” said co-author of the study Nicole Prause, in a statement. “People who write about sex addiction would say, ‘It’s not just high drive: they are out of control, they can’t stop and their brains are [changed].’ We just don’t see any evidence for them being different.”

"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."

The Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health estimates that 3 to 5 percent of the American population -- more than 9 million people -- meet some criteria to be identified as sex addicts. This is defined by the SASH as a "persistent and escalating pattern" of compulsive sexual behaviors that are acted on regardless of the "increasingly negative consequences to self or others."

Prause recognizes that these types of excessive sexual behaviors can cause issues for those affected by them, adding that she doesn't think the conclusions from her team's research removes their possible need for help. 

“I don’t think this means that they don’t deserve help or are faking or just being jerks,” she says. But she thinks adding the label addiction could pathologize normal variation and induce pessimism. “I don’t know that we need the overlay of addiction,” she says.

And many scientists like UCLA research psychologist Rory Reid agree that sexual addiction or hypersexual disorder should still be pursued as a possible diagnosis. Reid took part in a study that presented the idea that hypersexual disorder should qualify as a psychiatric diagnosis. He views the missing connection between p300 and the brain-wave reactions of the participants as not solid enough to discredit sexual addiction as a mental disorder. 

He thinks that other signals that weren't measured by Prause and her team might prove a connection. He also raises the point that since the individuals tested weren't in rehab programs, they might not be as deeply affected by their addiction as people seeking treatment. 

Seeing that Prause's study was the first of its kind, more research will have to be done to determine if sexual addiction should be classified as a mental disorder. The research also continues to provide possible treatment answers for compulsive sexual behavior, a means to improve the daily lives of those affected by these patterns. 

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