What happens in the female brain during an orgasm? It certainly doesn’t lie back and think of England, as the saying goes. In fact there’s rather a lot going on, according to a study on women who volunteered to stimulate themselves to orgasm while having their brains scanned.
Knowing what goes on in the brain during orgasm won’t just help women who are unable to reach sexual climax: it could also have implications for depression, pain, even obesity.
So says Barry Komisaruk, from Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, who’s here this week at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting to present a video which shows for the first time what goes on inside a woman’s brain during an orgasm. And as many men have long suspected - it’s complicated.
More than 30 areas of the brain are active during the event, including those involved in touch, memory, reward - and even pain.
“Knowing the sequence of events from stimulation to orgasm allows us to see what parts of the brain become activated and in what order. If we can compare this to the brain activity in anorgasmic women, we can see at what point their orgasm gets blocked and work out whether it’s possible to get around that block,” Komisaruk says.
To get his results, Komisaruk somehow persuaded nine women to stimulate themselves to orgasm while having their brains scanned in a functional MRI machine. Taking snapshots of activity throughout the event allowed Komisaruk and his colleagues to create a 3D video of the spread of activity around the brain during an orgasm.
Although the work has clear applications for the treatment of sexual dysfunction, there could be other avenues to explore. Komisaruk says his study showed activation in numerous areas previously thought to be inactive during orgasm, such as parts of the frontal cortex, providing more information about neural connectivity.
His team also saw activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula. This was surprising, since these areas are more commonly involved in the processing of pain. “The fact that these areas are both active during pain and intense pleasure suggests that they may be involved in the analgesic effects of orgasm,” says Komisaruk. This suggests the work may be useful to those looking at the neural mechanisms of pain and its treatment.
Next, Komisaruk plans to use neuro-feedback to help anorgasmic women view their brain activity in real time during genital stimulation. The hope is that this feedback may help them to manipulate their brain activity to bring it closer to that of an orgasmic pattern of activity, he says. “If we can gain some kind of voluntary control over the activity in these pleasure-producing regions of the brain, maybe we can use them to overcome other psychological problems such as depression - they might even be used in the treatment of obesity.”
A long way off perhaps, but a fascinating subject all the same. And judging by the number of nervous giggles around his poster, a subject of great interest in San Diego.
Helen Thomson, biomedical news editor, San Diego