Recent findings from British researchers indicate that people affected by sex addiction undergo certain harmful changes in brain function that also appear in people affected by substance addiction.
Substance addiction produces its core damaging effects by triggering lasting change in a multi-structure brain area commonly referred to as the pleasure center. In a study presented at the 2nd International Conference on Behavioral Addictions, researchers from the United Kingdom’s University of Cambridge sought to determine if people with the non-substance-based condition known as sex addiction experience similar changes in brain function. These researchers concluded that pleasure center alterations in the brains of people with sex addiction largely mirror the alterations found in the pleasure centers of people dealing with substance addiction.
Substance Addiction and the Pleasure Center
The pleasure center gets its name because it produces pleasurable or rewarding sensations in response to certain activities. For evolutionary reasons, most of the things that humans throughout time have found pleasurable are things that enhance the odds of individual and group survival, including having sex and eating tasty food. However, the pleasure center can also activate when humans do things that don’t increase the odds of survival. Prime examples here are drug consumption and the excessive use of alcohol. The amount of pleasure derived from substance intake can greatly outweigh the amount of pleasure derived from life-sustaining activities. Among other things, this means that in any given group of substance users, a predictable number will initiate a pattern of repeated, excessive intake as part of an attempt to gain frequent access to pleasurable or rewarding feelings.
Unfortunately, the pleasure center’s chemical makeup starts to change when it’s repeatedly exposed to drugs or alcohol. Eventually, this change can result in a physical dependence on further substance intake. For most substances (including alcohol and mind-altering illicit/illegal drugs), physical dependence is essentially synonymous with addiction and comes with a set of serious problems that can include loss of control over substance intake, exposure to significant substance-related harm, increasing tolerance to the effects of substance intake and a reduced ability to fulfill one’s responsibilities or obligations.
Sex addiction is an example of a non-substance-based behavioral addiction. As the name implies, behavioral addiction occurs when a person repeatedly and dysfunctionally engages in certain (typically pleasurable) commonplace behaviors or activities. In the case of sex addiction, the problem is dysfunctional involvement in real-world sexual behavior, sex-related thought patterns and/or sex-related fantasies. While behavioral addiction in general has official status among U.S. doctors, sex addiction in particular does not. Still, increasing amounts of verifiable evidence support the existence of the condition. In fact, in 2013 the American Psychiatric Association came very close to officially recognizing sex addiction in the form of a diagnosable condition called hypersexual disorder. Alternate terms for the same ailment include compulsive sexual behavior and hypersexuality.
Similar Brain Changes
In the study presented at the 2nd International Conference on Behavioral Addictions, the University of Cambridge researchers used a real-time brain scan procedure called fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to examine the pleasure centers of a group of sex-addicted men. The researchers specifically wanted to know if the changes in brain function classically associated with substance addiction also appear in the brains of people with sex addiction. The participant group also included men unaffected by sex addiction-related issues. All of the enrolled men underwent an fMRI exam while viewing a mixture of pornographic videos and sports-themed videos with no overt or intentional sexual content.
After analyzing the fMRI results, the researchers concluded that the men affected by sex addiction had undergone changes in several brain structures that help form the pleasure center. Essentially, these structures help determine how quickly a person reacts to pleasurable input and how much a person favors specific forms of pleasurable input. When they made statistical comparisons with the brains of people dealing with substance addiction, the researchers concluded that the pleasure center changes associated with sex addiction produce damaging functional alterations that effectively mimic the alterations found in substance-addicted brains.
Crucially, the study’s authors concluded that sex-addicted men don’t actually like sexually explicit material more than men unaffected by sex addiction. Instead, men with the condition experience a higher level of sexual desire that’s unrelated to actual enjoyment. This desire-based compulsion mirrors the compulsory substance consumption associated with substance addiction.