Sex on the Brain. How FMRI scans are uncovering the secrets of orgasm.

Posted by: on Oct 25, 2013 | No Comments

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Research into the brain and its importance as a sex aid has gained considerable momentum in the past ten years. FMRI scans which measure metabolic changes in the brain, have enabled scientists to create maps to illustrate which parts of the brain become more, or less, active during arousal and orgasm.

Although no single area of the brain takes sole responsibility for sex, a study in Neurology magazine in 2002 suggests that the origin of orgasmic feelings is in the right, or typically non-dominant, side of the brain. This information came to light when a 31-year-old Hungarian epilepsy patient told her doctors that for the past ten years she had experienced orgasm-like feelings just before she had a seizure. When Jozsef Janszky, of the National Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology in Budapest, explored the phenomenon in more depth, he uncovered in post-1945 medical literature 22 further cases of “orgasmic aura” preceding epileptic seizure. Brain-activity records from nine of those patients then enabled him to pinpoint the response to the amygdala, a region of the brain known to play an important part in emotional response and how we interpret sexual stimuli.

Information on sexual stimulation is transmitted to the brain, via the spine, by several different nerves. The most important are the pudendal nerve, which carries sensations from the sexy bits on the outside – the clitoris and the perineum (the area between the genitals and the anus); and the pelvic nerve, which carries sensations from the sexy bits on the inside – the G-spot, the clitoral shaft and the muscles that line the vaginal passage.

Psychobiologist and co-author of that infamous classic “The G Spot”, Dr Beverly Whipple believes that the fact that the pelvic nerve connects to internal organs and inner muscles explains why many women describe orgasms resulting from vaginal or G-spot stimulation as “deep” and “full-bodied”. Scientists have long believed that people with injuries or paralysis above the point at which these two nerves enter the spinal cord could not feel sexual stimulation, however Dr Whipple’s recent work seems to overturn this theory and she now believes that there is an alternative route to the brain that bypasses the spinal cord.

Using FMRI imaging, in a controlled experiment with one uninjured subject and two women with complete spinal cord injury, Dr Whipple measured brain activity while each of the subjects had a foot massage. Predictably, the injured women’s brains showed absolutely no response while the uninjured woman’s brain reacted as expected. But when they engaged in G-spot and cervical self-stimulation, rather than traditional clitoral stimulation, and Dr Whipple used the same technique to measure their brain activity? Bingo. The scans lit up showing that all the women were experiencing sexual feelings. Apparently one of the woman gave herself an orgasm for the first time since being paralysed years earlier, and had five more orgasms in the laboratory. It was an emotional moment.

Dr Whipple identified the vagus nerve (the only cranial nerve that starts in the brainstem and extends way all the way down to the abdomen) as an alternative pathway capable of carrying sensory cervical information to the brain even when the major spinal-cord pathways are interrupted. She hopes that a combination of laboratory studies and FMRI techniques will eventually lead to a greater understanding of arousal, offer hope to disabled women and lead to new treatments for sexual dysfunction.

There are indisputable benefits to using techniques such as FMRI scans to determine objectively what happens in the brain, and where, during orgasm. Older subjective methodologies which rely on questionnaires, ratings scales or lists of adjectives are also important, but they can only be as accurate as a woman’s ability to interpret her feelings and express herself. But although Dr Whipple’s work is a research breakthrough, particularly for those suffering from spinal cord injuries, there is a risk that setting up increasingly scientific parameters for something as elusive as the female orgasm could actually be a setback for the very many women who cannot conjure up a clitoral orgasm to save their lives, let alone find their G-spot.

Basically, the more exact the instructions for reaching climax, the more stupid one feels for not getting there. Dr Whipple’s G-spot legacy is a good example of the thin line between information and insecurity. Back in 1981, when she and her colleagues Laden and Perry revived the G-spot theory first proposed in 1950 by German gynaecologist Ernest Grafenberg, their book caused a media sensation. The G Spot, located about halfway between the back of the pubic bone and the cervix, along the course of the urethra and near the neck of the bladder, soon became the “must have” item on every woman’s sexual shopping list. Magazines churned out articles on the love button that could change your sex life. But off the printed page, the G-spot proved considerably more difficult to find.

As male index fingers all over the globe experienced the ache of repetitive strain injury and subsequent studies failed to prove Dr Whipple’s findings, the G spot appeared to be a triumph of hope over experience. Twenty years later, it was still controversial. In August 2001, Terence Hines, a professor of psychology at New York’s Pace University, published a report in The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, which claimed that evidence for the existence of the G-spot was no more than anecdotal. Dr Hines reviewed all the past research on the subject and concluded that the G-spot was a “sort of gynaecological UFO: much searched for …. but unverified by objective means”. He concluded that its existence had been based on a handful of females who were examined behaviourally and only four out of 12 women had shown signs of increased sensitivity in the area.

Given that the female orgasm has been as hard to define as the G-spot is to find, arguably, the brain is probably the only place that anyone will find a solution for the many women who suffer from an inability to orgasm. But according to David Goldmeier, a leading expert in sexual medicine at the Jane Wadsworth Clinic, St Mary’s Hospital, in London, the mental stimulation a woman needs is often nothing more complicated than kind words softly spoken. His experience suggests that in terms of global satisfaction scales: “women tend to view overall sexual satisfaction as being more important and tend to think less about sex and more about relationships”. He adds that for many of his patients, inability to orgasm is less of a problem for them than it is for their partners, who interpret it as a negative reflection on their performance.

Until neurology can explain consciousness, or what it feels like to have a tough job, three kids and a husband who takes up much more of the sofa than he did ten years ago, there are probably only two chances of a little pink pill to trigger orgasm in the amygdala. Slim and none.

The is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in The Times.

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