Neurosciences behind Ecstasy

For a long time, I have been a shy person, an introvert (to be exact). I preferred to keep my thoughts to myself and never expressed an opinion on anything!

Then, I slowly developed this whole new image of the “wild child”. Not exactly drugs and booze, just that I am open to talk and experience a whole lot of things that aren’t necessarily conventional. No, I am not talking about sneaking a cigarette or drowning a bottle of Tequila. I am talking about things like expressing my views on any topic that are considered to be taboo in India.

Recently, I was talking to my friends about this blog that I wanted to write. About human sexual activities and love (you can read about love here). Not in the adult film kind of way, but the neurosciences behind it. I know most of you started reading this blog post with a certain image in mind. I won’t be pasting pictures of naked women and men. I think there are enough sites to see that. Here I am going to write about the neurosciences and psychology behind that ultimate experience humans go through – Orgasm.

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 Taiwanese 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.

Ecstasy? Agony? Euphoria? Surprisingly little is known about what happens in the brain at the very peak of our sexual experience. A Dutch team have done the unthinkable and scanned the brains of men and women during orgasm.

Neuroscientists trying to untangle the riddle of desire and sexual pleasure in the brain have discovered something that turns conventional wisdom on its head. During orgasm, men experience heightened activity in the emotion-processing centres of the brain. But women’s brains, say researchers, are shut down in emotion-processing regions during arousal and orgasm.

Physiologist Dr Gemma O’Brian from the School of Biological, Biomedical and Molecular Sciences at the University of New England also has a keen interest in the neurobiology of the orgasm, as fleeting an experience as it can be sometimes.

Gemma O’Brien: And this is one of the problems with trying to look inside the brain during something like orgasm. Orgasm’s a fairly brief event. We enjoy the response for an extended period of time, the resolution phase, but the actual brain changes are fairly brief so finding a technique that can see what’s happening in the brain.

The whole orgasm process is divided into three stages by Masters and Johnson: stage of arousal plateau, sexual climax and resolution. And it’s the sexual climax part that many people use the word ‘orgasm’ for.

So, is it all chemicals or is it all in the brain?

In men who have a high spinal cord injury may have ongoing capacity to use the reproductive tract so they can manually stimulate or tactilely stimulate to erection and all the way through to ejaculation but not detect anything by brain, not orgasm. They have to actually look or feel by hand to see whether anything happened. But they don’t actually have the sensations of euphoria that come with it.

Both male and female sexual reward releases beta-endorphin (Dictionary of Pharmaceutical Medicine, Springer Vienna, 2009) in the brain, which in experiments caused tremor.

[Looking at the brains of orgasming men using a PET scanner] scientists also saw heightened activity in brain regions involved in memory-related imagery and in vision itself, perhaps because the volunteers used visual imagery to hasten orgasm. The anterior part of the cerebellum also switched into high gear. The cerebellum has long been labeled the coordinator of motor behaviors but has more recently revealed its role in emotional processing. Thus, the cerebellum could be the seat of the emotional components of orgasm in men, perhaps helping to coordinate those emotions with planned behaviors. The amygdala, the brain’s center of vigilance and sometimes fear, showed a decline in activity at ejaculation, meaning, men are oblivious to their surroundings during an orgasm.

To find out whether orgasm looks similar in the female brain, [neuroscientist Gert] Holstege’s team asked the male partners of 12 women to stimulate their partner’s clitoris—the site whose excitation most easily leads to orgasm—until she climaxed, again inside a PET scanner. Not surprisingly, the team reported in 2006, clitoral stimulation by itself led to activation in areas of the brain involved in receiving and perceiving sensory signals from that part of the body and in describing a body sensation—for instance, labeling it “sexual.”

But when a woman reached orgasm, something unexpected happened: much of her brain went silent. Some of the most muted neurons sat in the left lateral orbitofrontal cortex, which may govern self-control over basic desires such as sex. Decreased activity there, the researchers suggest, might correspond to a release of tension and inhibition. The scientists also saw a dip in excitation in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which has an apparent role in moral reasoning and social judgment—a change that may be tied to a suspension of judgment and reflection.

Brain activity fell in the amygdala, too, suggesting a depression of vigilance similar to that seen in men, who generally showed far less deactivation in their brain during orgasm than their female counterparts did. “Fear and anxiety need to be avoided at all costs if a woman wishes to have an orgasm; we knew that, but now we can see it happening in the depths of the brain,” Holstege says. He went so far as to declare at the 2005 meeting of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Development: “At the moment of orgasm, women do not have any emotional feelings.”

You cannot basically conclude that these parts of the brains are shutting down because of the intense experience that the body is going through. It is like a busy road, it maybe because there is a sale in the local supermarket, or there might be a circus performance, or there might be a cat fight going on. Come on, you are interested to see two cats fight viciously right?

Brain scanning just finds associations, but to find out whether an area is causally involved in a particular function or whether it is necessary for the function, research with brain injured patients is one of the most powerful methods.

For example, if you think a brain area is necessary for orgasm, or a certain component of orgasm, a person with damage to that area should not experience what you’ve predicted.

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.

So, if you have a way of testing people going through this, then tell me. Maybe I can do some mind boggling errr research. (I solemnly swear I am up to only good)

Peace

Avinash

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