The human sexual response cycle: brain imaging evidence linking sex to other pleasures

Prog Neurobiol. 2012 Jul;98(1):49-81. doi: 10.1016/j.pneurobio.2012.05.004. Epub 2012 May 15.


Sexual behavior is critical to species survival, yet comparatively little is known about the neural mechanisms in the human brain. Here we systematically review the existing human brain imaging literature on sexual behavior and show that the functional neuroanatomy of sexual behavior is comparable to that involved in processing other rewarding stimuli. Sexual behavior clearly follows the established principles and phases for wanting, liking and satiety involved in the pleasure cycle of other rewards. The studies have uncovered the brain networks involved in sexual wanting or motivation/anticipation, as well as sexual liking or arousal/consummation, while there is very little data on sexual satiety or post-orgasmic refractory period. Human sexual behavior also interacts with other pleasures, most notably social interaction and high arousal states. We discuss the changes in the underlying brain networks supporting sexual behavior in the context of the pleasure cycle, the changes to this cycle over the individual's life-time and the interactions between them. Overall, it is clear from the data that the functional neuroanatomy of sex is very similar to that of other pleasures and that it is unlikely that there is anything special about the brain mechanisms and networks underlying sex.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging
  • Animals
  • Arousal*
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Eating
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / anatomy & histology
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mammals
  • Models, Biological
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Orgasm*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Satiation*
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Sexual Behavior*
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal
  • Sexuality / physiology