An fMRI Study of Responses to Sexual Stimuli as a Function of Gender and Sensation Seeking: A Preliminary Analysis

J Sex Res. 2016 Oct;53(8):1020-1026. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2015.1112340. Epub 2016 Jan 26.


Although sexual cues produce stronger neural activation in men than in women, mechanisms underlying this differential response are unclear. We examined the relationship of sensation seeking and the brain's response to sexual stimuli across gender in 27 subjects (14 men, M = 25.2 years, SD = 3.6, 85.2% Caucasian) who underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while viewing sexual and nonsexual images. Whole-brain corrected significant clusters of regional activation were extracted and associated with gender, sensation seeking, and sexual behaviors. Men responded more to sexual than nonsexual images in the anterior cingulate/medial prefrontal cortex (ACC/mPFC), anterior insula/lateral orbitofrontal cortex, bilateral amygdala, and occipital regions. Sensation seeking related positively to ACC/mPFC (r = 0.65, p = 0.01) and left amygdala (r = 0.66, p = 0.01) response in men alone, with both of these correlations being significantly larger in men than in women (ps < 0.03). The relationship between brain responses and self-reported high-risk and low-risk sexual behaviors showed interesting, albeit nonsignificant, gender-specific trends. These findings suggest the relationship between sexual responsivity, sensation seeking, and sexual behavior is gender specific. This study indicates a need to identify the gender-specific mechanisms that underlie sexual responsivity and behaviors. In addition, it demonstrates that the nature of stimuli used to induce positive mood in imaging and other studies should be carefully considered.