Recent findings from a German research group point to tell-tale signs of altered pleasure center function in men with cybersex addiction who view pornographic images. Dysfunctional alteration of a brain area known as the pleasure center is a standard finding in all people affected by various forms of substance addiction; similar alteration commonly appears in the brains of people affected by non-substance-related conditions called behavioral addictions. In a study presented in March 2015 to the 2nd International Conference on Behavioral Addictions, researchers from Germany’s University of Duisburg-Essen looked for tell-tale indications of pleasure center alteration in men with cybersex addiction, a form of sex addiction that overlaps with a behavioral condition called Internet addiction.
Addiction and the Pleasure Center
The pleasure center is an interconnected group of structures in the human brain known formally as the nucleus accumbens. As its nickname implies, this brain area is responsible for producing pleasurable or rewarding sensations in response to certain human actions and activities. Survival-oriented activities that trigger a rewarding sensation in the brain include having sex and eating tasty food. The brain has a natural preference for these activities, since they help keep people alive. However, the pleasure center also kicks into gear when humans do a range of other things, including consuming alcohol or mind-altering drugs/medications and taking part in recreational activities such as shopping, playing games and gambling. If a person repeatedly consumes excessive amounts of alcohol or mind-altering drugs/medications or repeatedly engages in non-substance-based pleasurable activities, he or she can trigger ongoing changes in the pleasure center’s chemical mixture. Essentially, these changes set the stage for the onset of addiction by making that person reliant on continued participation in the activity in question in order to feel a sense of normalcy. The potential for addiction is a well-established principle in the context of substance use. In contrast, the concept of non-substance-based behavioral addiction only received official recognition from the American Psychiatric Association (the prime source for mental health definitions in the U.S.) in 2013.
Essentially, cybersex addiction is sex addiction (dysfunctional and damaging involvement in sexual fantasy, thought or behavior) manifested through use of the vast range of materials accessible through the Internet. Since Internet addiction is a separate manifestation of behavioral addiction, some researchers view cybersex addiction as a specific instance of addicted Internet use. Indications of cybersex addiction include using the Internet to access sexual material in clearly inappropriate settings, repeatedly failing to limit the consumption of sexual material through the Internet, feeling preoccupied with sex-related Internet use while engaged in other activities, using consumption of Internet-based sexual material to avoid dealing with personal problems, prioritizing the consumption of Internet-based sexual material over established relationships or responsibilities, shielding the extent of sex-related Internet use from other people and using the Internet to support illegal sexual activities.
Altered Pleasure Center Function
In the study presented at the 2nd International Conference on Behavioral Addictions, the University of Duisburg-Essen researchers used a small-scale project involving 20 heterosexual men to help determine if people with cybersex addiction undergo critical changes in their normal pleasure center function. All of the men underwent a real-time form of brain analysis called fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) while accessing pornographic materials over the Internet. In addition, each study participant took a screening test, called the Short Internet Addiction Test-Sex, designed to detect indications of cybersex addiction. The researchers specifically focused their attention on a portion of the pleasure center known as the ventral striatum; this structure plays a central role in determining the strength of any given person’s pleasurable or rewarding responses to various activities. When they compared the ventral striatum activity of the men with high scores for cybersex addiction to the scores of the men with low scores for cybersex addiction, the researchers concluded that men with high scores experienced clearly heightened levels of pleasure or reward while viewing pornographic images that personally appealed to them. Based on their findings, the study’s authors believe that cybersex addiction is associated with an unusually high level of activity in the pleasure center during the viewing of Internet-based pornographic material. Critically, they also believe that men with relatively severe indications of cybersex addiction experience greater degrees of pleasure center alteration than men with relatively moderate or mild indications of cybersex addiction.