Brain mapping research finds surprising connections
For a sensory-behavioral process that garners so much public interest, it’s remarkable how little neuroscientific research has focused on understanding orgasm.
Even neuroscientist Barry R. Komisaruk, who now studies brain activity during sexual response and orgasm, was pursuing other research when an “incidental finding” revealed that vaginal stimulation blocked pain in laboratory rats. That led Komisaruk, Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology at Rutgers University in Newark, to see if the same pain-blocking occurred in women (it did) and to look for the nerve pathway at work.
At that time, genital sensation was thought to reach the brain only through the spinal cord. Komisaruk studied five women with severed spinal cords, injuries that left them paralyzed in their lower torsos. During the research, the women used vaginocervical self-stimulation and felt both stimulation and pain blockage. Three experienced orgasm.
“It was very emotional,” Komisaruk recalls. Some of the women cried. “It was a surprise to me and them because their doctors had told them after their injury that their sex life is over; they wouldn’t be able to feel genital sensations.”
Komisaruk and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to determine how genital sensation was signaled to the brain in women without an intact spinal cord. Imaging revealed activation of an alternative pathway through the vagus nerve, a long cranial nerve that had never been shown to extend into the pelvis in humans.
The findings, published in Brain Research (Oct. 22, 2004), “gave neural validation that they [the women] must be feeling sensation,” says Komisaruk. “It turned out to be the world’s first evidence of where orgasms occur in women’s brains.”
Since then, he has been using new technology to identify the sequence of brain regional activity leading up to, during and after women’s orgasms and map where input from the clitoris, vagina, cervix and uterus project in the brain. He also is mapping men’s genital sensations and orgasms. The data so far show that the penis, scrotum and testicles project sensation to different brain regions.
Komisaruk’s current work could help people who do not experience orgasm. “Virtually nothing is known about anorgasmia in men or women, other than that SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants) have a powerful effect on blocking orgasm,” he says.
He and his colleagues are developing a method of neurobiofeedback to enable people with genital sensation but not orgasm to view “their own brain activity in real time and see where the blockage occurs.” Anorgasmic individuals possibly could learn to bypass the blockage by controlling the related brain region.
His work has led to a side expertise in persistent genital arousal disorder (PGAD), a rare but debilitating condition in women. Sufferers are often dismissed as having a problem that is “all in their heads.” Through imaging, Komisaruk has shown they have real problems—abnormal activity in certain brain regions and a high incidence of nerve cysts that appear to contribute to PGAD.
Komisaruk believes it’s important for researchers to pay attention to—and pursue—findings that are unplanned or surprising.
That’s how his research on genital stimulation and pain blockage began, leading to evidence that brain areas activated by pain are the same ones activated by orgasm. From there, it showed the more pleasurable the genital stimulation, the greater the pain blockage. “There are intriguing connections between pleasure and pain in the brain that we do not yet understand, but we are working on it,” he says.
Barry R. Komisaruk received a B.S. in biology at The City University of New York and Ph.D. in psychobiology from Rutgers University. He was a National Institute of Mental Health postdoctoral fellow in neuroendocrinology at the Brain Research Institute, University of California at Los Angeles. Joining the Rutgers-Newark faculty in 1966, Komisaruk was a professor in the Institute of Animal Behavior and Department of Zoology. He is now Distinguished Professor in the Psychology Department, director of the Minority Biomedical Research Support Program, and former associate dean of the Graduate School. With a penchant for finding new research avenues to explore, Komisaruk received a Board of Trustees of Rutgers University Excellence in Research award and the Hugo G. Beigel Research Award of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. His major research interests include: functional neuroimaging of genital sensory response; neurophysiology, neuropharmacology and neuroendocrinology of reproductive behavior; and neural control of autonomic genital function. He is senior author of The Science of Orgasm, a comprehensive look at the biology and neuroscience of orgasm, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press, as well as The Orgasm Answer Guide, a general readership book from the same publisher. He has published more than 155 academic journal articles and chapters.
Selected Publications (Komisaruk and co-authors)
- The Orgasm Answer Guide, The Johns Hopkins University Press (2009)
- The Science of Orgasm, The Johns Hopkins University Press (2006)
Book chapters and periodicals
- Sexual Pleasure, Pleasures of the Brain: Neural Bases of Sensory Pleasure, Oxford University Press (2008)
- Orgasm, The Psychologist, Vol .21
- Neurological Impairment of Sexuality in Men and Women, Sexual Health. Chapter 13, Vol. 2 (2006)
- Functional MRI of the brain during orgasm in women, Annual Review of Sex Research, Vol. 16 (2005)
- Brain activity imaging during sexual response in women with spinal cord injury, Biological Substrates of Human Sexuality, American Psychological Association (2005)
- Brain activation during vaginocervical self-stimulation and orgasm in women with complete spinal cord injury: fMRI evidence of mediation by the vagus nerves Brain Research, Vol. 1024 (2004)
Selected Media Coverage
- Women do experience orgasms in giving birth, study suggests, GMA News-June 12, 2013
- Orgasms During Birth Are Real, Study Suggests, LiveScience.com- -May 31, 2013
- Unexcited? There May Be a Pill for That, New York Times - May 22, 2013
- First 3D Movie of Orgasm in the Female Brain, Time - Dec. 1, 2011
- Does Brain Function Differently During Sex Than During..., Opposing Views - May 22, 2011
- Rutgers lab studies female orgasm through brain imaging, nj.com - Apr 20, 2010
- What Do Women Want? - Discovering What Ignites Female... New York Times - Jan 22, 2009
- The McGill Daily » Sex tames pain Mcgill Daily - Oct 6, 2008
- The Science of Orgasm, Journal of American Medical Association - Feb 13, 2008
- Access : The pleasure principle, Nature.com - Feb 22, 2007
- The Science of Orgasm, by Barry Komisaruk New Scientist - Nov 18, 2006
- Health | Paralyzed women rediscover orgasms Seattle Times - Nov 23, 2005
- Solving the Brain, The New York Times – Nov. 10, 2003
- EDITORIAL: Science and the female orgasm, Mail & Guardian Online - Apr 11, 1997
- Orgasm-making Chemical Isolated, Rochester Sentinel - Apr 7, 1997
- Experts Find Key Orgasm Chemical The Nation – Apr. 8, 1997
- Rutgers Researchers Believe They've Isolated Orgasm... Daily News - Apr 7, 1997
- Orgasm Pill? A Big NO Washington Post - Apr 21, 1997
- Medical Milestones Sydney Morning Herald - Dec 24, 1984