Neural control of erection

Physiol Behav. 2004 Nov 15;83(2):189-201. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2004.08.014.


Penile erection is a vascular event controlled by the autonomic nervous system. The spinal cord contains the autonomic preganglionic neurons that innervate the penile erectile tissue and the pudendal motoneurons that innervate the perineal striated muscles. Sympathetic pathways are anti-erectile, sacral parasympathetic pathways are pro-erectile, and contraction of the perineal striated muscles upon activity of the pudendal nerves improves penile rigidity. Spinal neurons controlling erection are activated by information from peripheral and supraspinal origin. Both peripheral and supraspinal information is capable of either eliciting erection or modulating or inhibiting an erection already present. Sensory information from the genitals is a potent activator of pro-erectile spinal neurons and elicits reflexive erections. Some pre-motor neurons of the medulla, pons and diencephalon project directly onto spinal sympathetic, parasympathetic and pudendal motoneurons. They receive in turn sensory information from the genitals. These spinal projecting pathways release a variety of neurotransmitters, including biogenic amines (serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, and adrenaline) and peptides that, through interactions with many receptor subtypes, exert complex effects on the spinal network that controls penile erection. Some supraspinal structures (e.g. the paraventricular nucleus and the medial preoptic area of the hypothalamus, the medial amygdala), whose roles in erection have been demonstrated in animal models, may not project directly onto spinal pro-erectile neurons. They are nevertheless prone to regulate penile erection in more integrated and coordinated responses of the body, as those occurring during sexual behavior. The application of basic and clinical research data to treatment options for erectile dysfunction has recently proved successful. Pro-erectile effects of phosphodiesterase type 5 inhibitors, acting in the penis, and of melanocortin agonists, acting in the brain, illustrate these recent developments.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Androgens / physiology
  • Animals
  • Autonomic Nervous System / cytology
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Erectile Dysfunction / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neural Pathways / cytology
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Penile Erection / physiology*
  • Penis / innervation*
  • Receptors, Neurotransmitter / physiology
  • Reflex / physiology
  • Sexual Behavior / physiology
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Spinal Cord / cytology
  • Spinal Cord / physiology*


  • Androgens
  • Receptors, Neurotransmitter