Mechanisms of penile erection and basis for pharmacological treatment of erectile dysfunction

Pharmacol Rev. 2011 Dec;63(4):811-59. doi: 10.1124/pr.111.004515. Epub 2011 Aug 31.


Erection is basically a spinal reflex that can be initiated by recruitment of penile afferents, both autonomic and somatic, and supraspinal influences from visual, olfactory, and imaginary stimuli. Several central transmitters are involved in the erectile control. Dopamine, acetylcholine, nitric oxide (NO), and peptides, such as oxytocin and adrenocorticotropin/α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone, have a facilitatory role, whereas serotonin may be either facilitatory or inhibitory, and enkephalins are inhibitory. The balance between contractant and relaxant factors controls the degree of contraction of the smooth muscle of the corpora cavernosa (CC) and determines the functional state of the penis. Noradrenaline contracts both CC and penile vessels via stimulation of α₁-adrenoceptors. Neurogenic NO is considered the most important factor for relaxation of penile vessels and CC. The role of other mediators, released from nerves or endothelium, has not been definitely established. Erectile dysfunction (ED), defined as the "inability to achieve or maintain an erection adequate for sexual satisfaction," may have multiple causes and can be classified as psychogenic, vasculogenic or organic, neurologic, and endocrinologic. Many patients with ED respond well to the pharmacological treatments that are currently available, but there are still groups of patients in whom the response is unsatisfactory. The drugs used are able to substitute, partially or completely, the malfunctioning endogenous mechanisms that control penile erection. Most drugs have a direct action on penile tissue facilitating penile smooth muscle relaxation, including oral phosphodiesterase inhibitors and intracavernosal injections of prostaglandin E₁. Irrespective of the underlying cause, these drugs are effective in the majority of cases. Drugs with a central site of action have so far not been very successful. There is a need for therapeutic alternatives. This requires identification of new therapeutic targets and design of new approaches. Research in the field is expanding, and several promising new targets for future drugs have been identified.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alprostadil / pharmacology
  • Alprostadil / therapeutic use*
  • Erectile Dysfunction / drug therapy*
  • Erectile Dysfunction / etiology
  • Erectile Dysfunction / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Nervous System Physiological Phenomena
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / pharmacology
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / therapeutic use
  • Penile Erection / drug effects*
  • Penile Erection / physiology
  • Phosphodiesterase Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Phosphodiesterase Inhibitors / therapeutic use*


  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • Phosphodiesterase Inhibitors
  • Alprostadil