What can brain scans teach us about women's orgasms?
While Pfizer and other pharmaceutical titans have abandoned the pursuit of a Viagra for females as too complicated, a growing number of university researchers are reporting progress with the help of brain scanners and other technology.Why hasn't this research been done before?
Yes, they're watching women's brains while they have orgasms. And they're coming to some interesting conclusions.
For example, by studying paralyzed women who can still experience orgasm, they discovered that for women, the vagus nerve appears to be quite important, and therefore may be a promising target for drugs. This nerve — which is outside the spinal cord — carries information to areas of the brain that control mood.
"We basically found the areas of the brains that are activated in orgasm in women," said Barry Komisaruk, who worked with Whipple on this research, which is being funded by the federal government and the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation.
Brain scans measure the blood flow of research volunteers, whose heads are strapped tightly down inside the noisy machines. When brain cells start firing in a part of the brain that governs a particular emotion or activity, they need more oxygen, which is carried by the blood. During a brain scan, active regions of the brain can be seen lighting up on a computer monitor.
The scans reveal something else about women — during orgasms, the pain centers in their brains shut down, and pleasure centers — the same ones that become active when people ingest cocaine — light up.
But a big problem with these scans — done through magnetic resonance imaging — is that no machine yet built is designed to simultaneously monitor both the brain and the body. And even if they could, the images' clarity would be muddied by "background noise" such as hand movements.
That's why Komisaruk is currently studying the brains of women who can self-stimulate purely through thought — an apparently rare attribute that eliminates the noise — as he seeks to find out exactly what makes women tick during sex.
"The strange thing is that everyone knows that it all happens between the ears and not between the legs," said Gert Holstege, a leading sexual researcher at Groningen University in The Netherlands.
In June, Holstege published one of the first studies that mapped brain activity during orgasm for men and women, who were stimulated by their partners.
Among other results, Holstege found that the part of the brain thought to control fear and anxiety — the amygdala — deactivated during orgasm for both women and men.
He acknowledged that his data for men is a little suspect — however — because they don't orgasm long enough to take a proper brain scan.
Brain scanning technology has been available for close to 20 years, but is only now being used to study sex. Researchers attribute the delay to several factors, including managerial skepticism and government reluctance to fund much of the work.via the Well-Timed Period.
"In the United States people are little more reserved when it comes to sex than in the Netherlands," said Holstege. He said that his U.S. colleagues told him they'd be afraid to propose such a project to their own bosses.