Sex on the brain: Orgasms unlock altered consciousness
WITH a click and a whirr, I am pulled into the scanner. My head is strapped down and I have been draped with a blanket so that I may touch my nether regions - my clitoris in particular - with a certain degree of modesty. I am here neither for a medical procedure nor an adult movie. Rather, I am about to stimulate myself to orgasm while an fMRI scanner tracks the blood flow in my brain.
My actions are helping Barry Komisaruk at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, and colleagues to tease apart the mechanisms underlying sexual arousal. In doing so, not only have they discovered that there is more than one route to orgasm, but they may also have revealed a novel type of consciousness - an understanding of which could lead to new treatments for pain (see Top-down pain relief).
Despite orgasm being a near-universal human phenomenon, we still don't know all that much about it. "The amount of speculation versus actual data on both the function and value of orgasm is remarkable," says Julia Heiman, director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction in Bloomington, Indiana.
It is estimated that one in four women in the US has had difficulty achieving orgasm in the past year, while between 5 and 10 per cent of women are anorgasmic - unable to achieve orgasm at all. But without precise data to explain what happens during this experience, there are few treatment options available for women who might want help.
Komisaruk is interested in the time course of orgasm, and particularly when an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC) becomes active. The PFC is situated at the front of the brain and is involved in aspects of consciousness, such as self-evaluation and considering something from another person's perspective.
Komisaruk's team recently found heightened activation in the PFC during female climax - something not seen in previous studies of the orgasm. Surprisingly, this was also the case in individuals who can achieve orgasm by thought alone. With fantasy and self-referential imagery often reported as being part of the sexual experience, Komisaruk and colleagues wondered if the PFC might be playing a key role in creating a physiological response from imagination alone. That is why I am here. Read the rest on New Scientist.