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U. researchers study female brain during orgasm

University neuroscientists mapped the first projection of the female genital system onto the sensory cortex and published the results in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.

Barry Komisaruk, a professor in the psychology department at Rutgers-Newark, and his colleagues conducted the sensory maps to focus on the female orgasm as opposed to the male orgasm, which has traditionally received more attention, said Nan Wise, a Ph.D student and sex therapist in Komisaruk’s lab.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, Komisaruk’s team discovered that the mechanical stimulation of the clitoris, vagina and cervix each activates a slightly different part of the sensory cortex in the same general region, compared to past research in men using electrical stimulation, Komisaruk said.

“It’s basic sex science. It’s basic brain science,” Wise said. “There is very little that gets so much of the brain activated as an orgasm.”

The use of electrical stimulation in studies of the male sensory cortex stretches back to 1951, when Wilder Penfield, a Canadian neurosurgeon, developed a mapping tool called homunculus, Komisaruk said.

The researchers tracked the effects of an orgasm throughout the body and the brain, said Beverly Whipple, a professor emerita at Rutgers-Newark.

“We’ve identified the areas of the brain that are activated,” Whipple said. “We [were able] to demonstrate that an orgasm is a total body experience and not just one reflex pathway.”

The recent publications were built upon past research, Komisaruk said.

“I teamed up with Beverly Whipple who did her doctorate with me, and we studied whether vaginal self-stimulation in women produced the similar effect of pain blockage, and we found a very powerful pain-blocking action,” he said.

Along with Frank Jordan, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Rutgers-Newark, Komisaruk analyzed a peptide that is released into the spinal cord during vaginal stimulation and discovered that different components produced pain-blocking effects, he said.

“We patented it,” Komisaruk said. “Whether that can be developed commercially is another issue.”

Four different pathways from the female genital system to the brain were discovered — the genital nerve, the pelvic nerve, the hypogastric nerve and the sensory vagus nerve, Whipple said.

With this knowledge, the focus turned to women who had spinal cord injuries at different levels, Komisaruk said. Women who had all the nerve pathways through the spinal cord severed still had vaginal sensation.

“I found it very rewarding working with women with complete spinal cord injury because they were told they couldn’t experience orgasm,” Whipple said. “I had one woman in the lab who had her first orgasm since her spinal cord injury, and she was crying and so was I. It’s very moving.”

By recording brain activity, Komisaruk found that the vagus nerve’s projection zone, which goes directly to the brain outside the spinal cord, was activated in women whose spinal cords had been cut.

One of the ways the team is working to bypass blocks is to have people in the brain scanner looking at their own brain activity in near real-time to see if it is possible to teach themselves how to control brain activity voluntarily, he said.

Komisaruk said if people can learn to activate the pleasure-producing parts of the brain voluntarily, the possibilities could be positive.

“What would happen if a person who’s depressed learns to do that, or a person who has chronic pain or chronic anxiety or a drug addiction?” Komisaruk said. “Can we teach our brain to overcome these maladies such as depression or anxiety or addiction or pain?”

Wise said it is still early in the process to definitively state the appropriate benefits of their research.

“It really takes a lot of time and applied stuff before you can make big jumps into what are the clinical applications,” Wise said. “We’re moving in the direction where they’ll be forthcoming. You’ve got to do the basic legwork before you get to the actual applied stuff, but it’s there.”

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