Hormones Matter TM

Orgasm in the Name of Science

June 18, 2012  |  Elena Perez

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MRI Brain

Woman Orgasms for the Big Screen

Well, you can see female brain activity while a woman masturbates, anyhow. Not quite porn, but men should be just as interested in understanding what makes a woman climax – Doctors are.

Professor Barry Komisaruk, a psychologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, asked Nan Wise, a sex therapist and one of his PhD students, to lay in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and masturbate so they could monitor brain activity before, during, and after an orgasm.

A youtube video captures the event in less than a minute – but don’t be mistaken, the video only presents a selection of images from the brain scan. The average woman needs more time than that to orgasm: She needs at least 3 more minutes, on average. For Nan Wise, the entire process, from initial stimulation, to orgasm, to recovery, takes a total of 12 minutes.

Making Sense of the Sex Scan

The brain imaging is based on brain activity, which is measured by how much oxygen the blood delivers to different parts of the brain. Dark red regions have less oxygen, which suggests there is less brain activity taking place; whereas yellow regions have high oxygen levels, and are therefore more engaged.

There is a steady buildup of brain activity, and once all is said and done, a total of 80 regions of the brain end up being stimulated.

Mapping Out the Orgasm

The orgasm starts in the sensory cortex, which makes sense, since Wise is touching herself. Then oxygen levels begin to increase in the limbic system, brain structures associated with emotion and long-term memory. Cerebellum and frontal cortex areas show activity leading up to the orgasm, which may be due to muscle tension, until activity levels culminate in the hypothalamus and nucleus accumbens.

The posterior pituitary is responsible for releasing oxytocin, a chemical that increases pain thresholds and suppresses the amygdala, an area in the brain that processes fear. The nucleus accumbens is the part of the brain associated with reward and pleasure.

Researchers have noted that the parts of the brain that show activity during masturbation are the same areas that are stimulated when women experience pain. This, researchers think, may be why women, while orgasming make facial expressions that look as though they’re in pain.

Not Quite Finished

Scientists hope to use this research in order to gain a better understanding of why some women (and men) cannot orgasm. If scientists can see where brain activity begins to wane, they can try to learn what may be impeding an individual’s ability to orgasm.

Better yet, Professor Komisaruk wants people to be able to see where activity breaks down themselves. He is developing a new technique in which individuals can instantly see their own brain activity while they are in the fMRI scanner. He calls it, “neurobiofeedback.”

It seems likely that brain activity during orgasm would vary among different individuals, but we’ll have to wait until the next group of women volunteer to masturbate in an MRI.

Now, without further ado, please enjoy the featured presentation: