Sex in the Brain: Hypersexuality

During the winter, when the cooler weather keeps people indoors, sex may have a more prominent part in the lives of many couples.  Since the feelings that ultimately result in sex are developed in the brain, they can be altered by a brain injury.  Additionally, since the desire for sex is neurological, if, when and with whom someone wants to have sex can be changed by a brain injury.  Finally, how someone expresses their feelings following a brain injury may be altered.  Today, I present the first of several articles that showcases federal research and other important information regarding the expression of libido in those with brain injuries in an article series entitled Sex in the Brain:

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A 43-year-old man was in an auto accident.  The accident left the man in a coma and having seizures for three weeks.  Upon regaining full consciousness, while still in the hospital, he masturbated multiple times a day for the next 2 weeks…. A 33-year-old married woman with children was in a car crash that caused a moderate head injury.  Though it was 2 weeks until she regained full consciousness and though she had aphasia for 4 weeks, X-rays of the skull showed no abnormalities in the brain.  However, while at the hospital, she flashed a female visitor and consistently, “demanded to go home to fulfill her sexual urge.”

The above two stories are some of the clinical data from a 2008 study regarding hypersexuality, also known as compulsive sexual behavior, following brain injury.  Hypersexuality, previously termed nymphomania in men and satyriasis in women, is, “the inability to regulate one’s sexual behavior that is a source of significant personal distress.”  It is about the object of sex, as opposed to the relationship.  Sexual fantasies, urges and behavior become a preoccupation that is difficult to control, causes distress and ultimately has negative effects on one’s health and life.  Its presentation can be in numerous ways, such as through excessive and public masturbation, an excessive number of sexual partners, an excessive use of pornography and/or paying for sex.  If this occurs for over 6 months, it is considered an addiction, specifically a process addiction like gambling, binge eating or compulsive spending.

Also, like any other addiction, hypersexuality has a neurological basis and, therefore, can be either a primary diagnosis or secondary diagnosis caused by another disorder, such as bipolar disorder, dementia or traumatic brain injury, among other disorders, or caused by medication, like dopamine agonist.  Neurologically, it is caused by an injury to the frontal lobe.  Though it may be a sensational topic, it is rare(It is more common among those arrested for exhibitionism than it is for the general public.  “Between 5 and 35% of those arrested for exhibition are found to be suffering from organic disorders to which the behavior can be at least partially attributed.”)  Additionally, it is more common in men.

Despite all the federal research to prove it as a unique impulse control issue, when the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition) came out in October 2017, hypersexuality was not included.  (Hypersexuality and compulsive sexual behavior both fell under the “sexual disorders not otherwise specified” category in DSM-4.)  That year, though, the NIH did develop a new defining phrase to explain actions that occur due to the disorder: the sexhavior cycle of hypersexuality.

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