Central control of penile erection: role of the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus

Prog Neurobiol. 2005 May;76(1):1-21. doi: 10.1016/j.pneurobio.2005.06.002.


The paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus is an integration centre between the central and peripheral autonomic nervous systems. It is involved in numerous functions from feeding, metabolic balance, blood pressure and heart rate, to erectile function and sexual behaviour. In particular, a group of oxytocinergic neurons originating in this nucleus and projecting to extra-hypothalamic brain areas (e.g., hippocampus, medulla oblongata and spinal cord) control penile erection in male rats. Activation of these neurons by dopamine and its agonists, excitatory amino acids (N-methyl-D-aspartic acid) or oxytocin itself, or by electrical stimulation leads to penile erection, while their inhibition by gamma-amino-butyric acid (GABA) and its agonists or by opioid peptides and opiate-like drugs inhibits this sexual response. The activation of these neurons is secondary to the activation of nitric oxide synthase, which produces nitric oxide. Nitric oxide in turn causes, by a mechanism that is as yet unidentified, the release of oxytocin in extra-hypothalamic brain areas. Other compounds recently identified that facilitate penile erection by activating central oxytocinergic neurons are peptide analogues of hexarelin, a growth hormone releasing peptide, pro-VGF-derived peptides, endogenous peptides that may be released by neuronal nerve endings impinging on oxytocinergic cell bodies, SR 141716A, a cannabinoid CB1 receptor antagonist, and, less convincingly, adrenocorticotropin-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (ACTH-MSH)-related peptides. Paraventricular oxytocinergic neurons and similar mechanisms are also involved in penile erection occurring in physiological contexts, namely noncontact erections that occur in male rats in the presence of an inaccessible receptive female, and during copulation. These findings show that the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus plays an important role in the control of erectile function and sexual activity. As the male rat is a model of sexual behaviour and penile physiology, which has largely increased in the last years our knowledge of peripheral and central mechanisms controlling erectile function (drugs that induce penile erection in male rats usually do so also in man), the above results may have great significance in terms of a human perspective for the treatment of erectile dysfunction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Paraventricular Hypothalamic Nucleus / physiology*
  • Penile Erection / physiology*
  • Rats