The Neuroscience of Porn Addiction

by Cris Clapp Logan on May 9th, 2012 in Parents

Earlier this week, we looked at two reasons pornography can be especially harmful to children: Firstly, the images can never be erased and are especially alluring to young brains; and, Secondly, that a child’s prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, and as a result, they have a very difficult time distinguishing fantasy from reality (read the full blog here).

The third reason that pornography can be harmful to children is the chemical impact of the material on the brain.  In recent years, we have learned that when an individual views pornography, they trigger brain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin and epinephrine, and they can similarly develop a dependency on the release of these chemicals.  As a recent article from the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Texas Health Science Center highlighted, addictions create, in addition to chemical changes in the brain, anatomical and pathological changes which result in various manifestations of cerebral dysfunction collectively labeled hypofrontal syndrome.  Reduced to its simplest description, hypofrontal syndrome damages the “breaking system” of the brain, which is why an addict exhibits impulsivity, compulsivity, impaired judgment, emotional issues, etc.  Drug addicts often show reduced cellular activity and even volume loss in the prefrontal cortex of the brain (we also discussed the prefrontal cortex of the brain in Monday’s blog here).

A 2007 VBM (MRI-based) study out of Germany [1] looked specifically at pedophilia, and concluded for the first time that sexual compulsion can also cause physical, anatomic change in the brain, the hallmark of brain addiction (The impact on the brain was almost identical to brain studies regarding the abuse of cocaine and methamphetamine).  Additionally, as another study pointed out, a preliminary study showed frontal dysfunction specifically in patients unable to control their sexual behavior; using MRI technology, sex addicts demonstrated an abnormality in the superior frontal region, similar to that seen in drug addicts.

In 2005, Dr. Eric Nestler described all addiction as a dysfunction of the mesolimbic reward centers of the brain. As explained by Pornography Addiction: A Neuroscience Perspective, (from which much of this content draws): “Addiction occurs when pleasure/reward pathways are hijacked by exogenous drugs such as cocaine or opioids, or by natural processes essential and inherent to survival such as food and sex.”  Growing evidence suggests that our brain’s dopaminergic pathways similarly mediate, at least in part, the acute positive emotional effects of natural rewards, such as food, sex and social interactions.  These same regions have also been implicated in the so-called ‘natural addictions’ (that is, compulsive consumption for natural rewards) such as pathological sexual addictions.  Preliminary findings suggest that natural addictions (i.e. sex, gambling, eating disorders) share mental pathways and responses with those patterns seen in drug abuse. 

Papers published in 2010 also examined the effect of sexuality on neuroplasticity. In one study, sexual experience has been shown to induce alterations in medium spiny neurons in the nucleus accumbens similar to those seen with drugs of abuse.[2] Another study found that sexuality specifically increases DeltaFosB in the nucleus accumbens, and serves a role as a mediator in natural reward memory. This study also found that overexpression of DeltaFosB (which could occur with consistent exposure to or interaction with online pornography) induced a hypersexual syndrome. 

So, bottom line, pornography use can essentially rewire the functionality of the brain, negatively impacting the prefrontal cortex and mimicking the negative cognitive impacts of drugs like cocaine and meth.  As a parent, I hope you are beginning to see just how critical it is to protect your children from early exposure to this type of content by using a filter and parental controls (see our parent resources on pornography to get started).




[1] Schiffer B, Peschel T, Paul T, Gizewski E, Forsting M, Leygraf N, et al. Structural brain abnormalities in the frontostriatal system and cerebellum in pedophilia. J Psychiatr Res. 2007;41:754–62.

[2] Pitchers KK, Balfour ME, Lehman MN, Richtand NM, Yu L, Coolen LM. Neuro-plasticity in the mesolimbic system induced by natural reward and subsequent reward abstinence. Biol Psy. 2010;67:872–9

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