Central neural regulation of penile erection

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2000 Jul;24(5):517-33. doi: 10.1016/s0149-7634(00)00020-8.


Penile erection is caused by a change of the activity of efferent autonomic pathways to the erectile tissues and of somatic pathways to the perineal striated muscles. The spinal cord contains the cell bodies of autonomic and somatic motoneurons that innervate the peripheral targets. The sympathetic outflow is mainly antierectile, the sacral parasympathetic outflow is proerectile, and the pudendal outflow, through contraction of the perineal striated muscles, enhances an erection already present. The shift from flaccidity to erection suggests relations among these neuronal populations in response to a variety of informations. Spinal neurons controlling erection are activated by information from peripheral and supraspinal origin. Both peripheral and supraspinal information is capable of eliciting erection, or modulating or inhibiting an erection already present. One can hypothesize a spinal network consisting of primary afferents from the genitals, spinal interneurons and sympathetic, parasympathetic and somatic nuclei. This system is capable of integrating information from the periphery and eliciting reflexive erections. The same spinal network, eventually including different populations of spinal interneurons, would be the recipient of supraspinal information. Premotor neurons that project directly onto spinal sympathetic, parasympathetic or somatic motoneurons, are present in the medulla, pons and diencephalon. Several of these premotor neurons may in turn be activated by sensory information from the genitals. Aminergic and peptidergic descending pathways in the vicinity of spinal neurons, exert complex effects on the spinal network that control penile erection. This is caused by the potential interaction of a great variety of receptors and receptor subtypes present in the spinal cord. Brainstem and hypothalamic nuclei (among the latter, the paraventricular nucleus and the medial preoptic area) may not necessarily reach spinal neurons directly. However they are prone to regulate penile erection in more integrated and coordinated responses of the body, such as those occurring during sexual behavior. Finally, the central and spinal role of regulatory peptides (oxytocin, melanocortins, endorphins) has only recently been elucidated.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Central Nervous System / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Penile Erection / physiology*
  • Spinal Cord / physiology