On orgasms, epilepsy and the lack of sexual neuroscience

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Recently published results report the first reliable link between brain activity and levels of sexual desire. Yoram Vardi from Rambam Hospital in Israel has reported an association between an electrical brain signal (known as P300) and libido.

The fact that such a straightforward link is both important and newsworthy may be surprising for people who aren’t aware of the state of scientific research into the neuroscience of sex.

Considering that sex is one of the most important human activities, and the current findings have been thrilling to say the least, why is it that we know so little about how the brain handles sex ?

A case study published by a team of Taiwanese neurologists reported a most unusual set of circumstances.

One of their 41 year-old female patients, diagnosed with epilepsy, had a seizure every time she brushed her teeth. Seizures in response to external stimulation are not unusual – flashing lights are a well known source – and other sorts of stimulation are not uncommon triggers. A recent case-report even involved seizures induced by vacuum cleaner use.

So the unusual aspect for the Tiawanese case was not the trigger, but the effect of the seizure. The woman had seizures when she brushed her teeth, and had an orgasm every time she had a seizure, shortly before losing consciousness.

Although probably doing wonders for her dental health, the condition has left neurologists rather puzzled. Because so little is known about sex and the brain, her doctors had very little to go on when they tried to explain what was happening.

Sexual neuroscience is one of the most under-researched areas in the human sciences. A quick search of PubMed (the international database of medical research) shows that we know more about the neuroscience of hiccups than we do about orgasm.

Part of the problem is practical. fMRI scanners, some of the most useful and popular tools in cognitive neuroscience, involve lying in a tube while scanning takes place and need the head to be completely still. Add the fact that you’re being watched by neuroscientists and none of this makes for relaxed coupling, or even self-stimulation.

Nevertheless, pioneering researchers have tried to tackle the problem with other methods. A Dutch team led by Gert Holstege used an alternative form of brain scanning, known as Positron emission tomography or PET, to study orgasm in men. PET doesn’t have the same cramped conditions as fMRI allowing for a bit more sexual freedom in the lab.

They still had some considerable problems to overcome though, not least of which was timing an orgasm to occur during a predefined time-slot, during which brain activity could be monitored. PET requires a radioactive tracer to be injected into the bloodstream, and although the radiation is very weak, it’s best to use only as much as necessary. This means the intuitive approach of continuous scanning and waiting for the pop of the cork is just not feasible.

Instead they asked couples to practice at home. The participant’s partner (who had the more difficult task by far) needed to be be able to make her partner ejaculate – while he was standing, being injected by radiation, watched by neuroscientists and, most importantly, during a precise 50 second time-slot.

With all credit to the women involved, 8 ejaculations were recorded from the eleven men who volunteered.

The research team found that brain activation is not dissimilar to the effects of certain drugs (the authors mention heroin), showing greatly increased activation in a deep midbrain area called the ventral tegmentum, an area linked to reward, desire and pleasurable experiences.

In contrast, comparitively little cortex activity is involved in the male orgasm. The cortex is typically considered the source of complex thought and mental co-ordination, and Holstege’s team put most of the activity here down to erection and sensations in the penis. Men it seems, are more than capable of thinking with their dicks, even when being injected with radioactive tracer.

Sadly, even less is known about the neuroscience of female sexuality and orgasm. Not least because, as many men (and I’m sure women) will testify, the female orgasm is sometimes difficult to predict.

But a far greater problem is the perception of this sort of research. It’s exactly the sort of science that the press loves to go giggly about. News stories tend to be gleefully reported, virtually free of any actual news. “Sex researchers study sex” seems to make headlines where “hiccup researchers study hiccups” seems to barely raise a byline.

This type of reporting tends to put off scientists, who want to be seen as serious researchers, and funders, who want to be seen as supporting important research. Science marches on however, and luckily for us all, some scientists are not disuaded by the accompanying media circus.

But if it takes your fancy, you could always volunteer as a participant yourself. Neuroscience studies take various forms, and many involve nothing more than having a few electrodes stuck to your head.

Importantly, participation is confidential and you would be contributing towards progress in neurology and neuroscience, but most deliciously, it’s a fantastically unusual way to spice up your sex life.

10 Comments

  1. Posted January 26, 2005 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    On orgasms, epilepsy, and the lack of sexual neuroscience

    Boing Boing reader Laura says, The O’Reilly Mind Hacks blog frequently posts cool neuroscience links, but this one describing research on the neuroscience of the orgasm was especially interesting. They discuss, among other things, a Dutch study on the …

  2. Posted January 26, 2005 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    I need to get back into research…

    http://www.mindhacks.com/blog/2005/01/on_orgasms_epilepsy.html
    Part of the p…

  3. Posted January 26, 2005 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Sexual neuroscience

    An interesting article here on how little has been done on neuroscience related to sex — and why. Bottom line, neuroscientific research setups are not terribly conducive to producing orgasms,…

  4. Posted January 27, 2005 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Bill O’Reilly offered to investigate and/or participate

    You’d think with America’s cultural obsession with sex, youth, and big, juicy brains, we’d have more research on sexual neuroscience. That is the subject of this Mind Hacks post, which notes that only recently have published reports shown definitive li…

  5. Posted January 27, 2005 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    petite morte, petit mal

    For years I’ve had little hallucinations when I get turned on. I’ve grouped the details under sex dreams in the encyclopedia vaginica; basically I get the dreamy sensation of being in a specific, random, fantastical setting such as candy la…

  6. Phoebe
    Posted September 30, 2007 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    Hello,
    I was very interested in your article about epilepsy and orgasm. During the last two months I’ve had something happen during sex that two neurologists have never heard of before and have not been able to explain. What happens occurs ONLY during sex and only in the “missionary” position. When I orgasm I go into an unconsious state that my partner says lasts about 15 minutes. While I’m in this unconscious state I think that I’m still having sex and meanwhile he gets up and starts talking to me. He says that I don’t hear him at first. Toward the end I sometimes do hear him and what he says doesn’t make sense because it seems like an “off the wall” thing to say during sex (which, as I said before, is what I think I’m doing while I’m out). He says that my shoulders are twitching and I have a big grin on my face. Eventually, I do come out of it, at first saying single words, then sentences, and finally I am back to feeling normal. I’m having difficulty finding anyone else who has had an experience like mine so I don’t know whether it’s something to be concerned about. I do find it disconcerting -as does my partner. Thanks for any help you can provide.

    • ladybug
      Posted January 8, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      Sex has been known to trigger siezures and it sounds as if you may be having a type of siezure! As long as this is the only time you are experiencing it, I wouldn’t worry about too much about it, but it wouldn’t hurt to see a neurologist just to be sure. It is odd that the siezure seems subjectively to be a continuation of the act of sex, but siezures (especially temporal lobe) can take a huge number of forms. I (contrarily) for one can orgasm just from having a siezure (I don’t lose conciousness but it can be overwhelming) and I’m not alone in this unusual experience. So if sex and/or orgasm can trigger siezures, they why can’t the orgasm trigger an orgasmic siezure? Still, if this is new (have you ever experienced this before?) then you really should get checked by a neurologist as it could possibly mean some kind of change in your brain that should be evaluated. Were you in a recent car accident? Any minor head injury? Do you get a lot of headaches? I’ve read that migraines can trigger siezures as well, and migraines can be a “silent” type–meaning you get the auras but not the pain. (lucky you) Please don’t worry, but get checked anyway just to be sure. Likely everything is ok and you and your boyfriend should just enjoy your experience.

      • ladybug
        Posted January 8, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, I missed the part that had you already seeing 2 neurologists. I’m glad that you are following up. Have they run EEGs to look for siezure activity? I have the residual affects of a traumatic brain injury and it affects my memory, so excuse me for overlooking parts of your post in my reply. I’m usually more careful.

  7. erica
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I have been trying to figure out what I can do for myself to lessen my seizures, I lost medicaid a few months ago and can no longer afford my medications for epilepsy, I have partial complex seizures and it used to be that almost everytime I missed a pill I would have a seizure, long story short it has been over 3 months since I ran out of medication and I have not had one seizure (or so I think) and I believe what might be helping is the fact that my fiance and I have a very strong sexual relationship together. Sex has been known to ward off my depression also and I am trying to see if there is a way to see if my lack of seizures is in fact from my sexlife, please if anyone has any further information let me know, thank you!

  8. sunnycow
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    My boyfriend stopped meds for epilepsy about a year ago. While he was on medication we had a very active sex life and on the rare occasion he would pass out for a minute or so or get dizzy, but it hardly affected our sex life.

    Now he has a seizure every time we have sex.

    Going back on medication is not an option.Since he stopped medication his kidney function has improved, migraines subsided and muscle and joint aches are gone. His aggression and stress levels have reduced. He has also seen a remarkable reduction in the frequency and severity of seizures since he quit meds (EXCEPT) when we have sex and sometimes at gym.

    I love my boyfriend and want to be intimate with him, but what can I do?

    Neuroscientists! Please don’t stop your research.


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