By Harriet Milligan
Until recently, female reproductive health has largely been overlooked, both scientifically and socially. Little research has been done to understand the female orgasm from a neural perspective, and any research on brain stimulation during sexual activity has historically completed with male participants. Better medical imaging techniques as well as a necessary increase in interest surrounding female reproductive health has led to more, higher-quality research on the female orgasm.
The literature on brain activity during sexual arousal is vast, but until recent improvements in brain imaging, neural activity during orgasm has been difficult to quantify. The imaging techniques typically used to study activation in multiple brain areas need high spatial resolution, meaning the imaging modality can measure the brain on a small scale (around 1mm). For best image resolution, participants need to remain still during scans - a difficult requirement for participants experiencing orgasm.
Findings in this area will provide a strong body of research on women’s sexual health and gender equality.
Recently, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe brain activity during female orgasms. fMRI’s have good spatial and temporal resolution, meaning brain activation can be observed as the orgasm occurs. The researchers found if the patient’s head was confined to a mask and neck brace, head movement could be minimized to less than 1.3 mm. These two crucial methodologies make this study unique compared to others in the same field.
The study included ten participants who were measured when having a self-stimulated and a partner-stimulated clitoral orgasm. The participants pressed buttons within the fMRI to start the session, then again to indicate when the start of the orgasm occurred, when it ended and when they felt fully recovered. Brain activity was measured from the start of stimulation to the end of recovery.
The researchers wanted to identify areas of the brain activity unique to orgasm. When compared to the beginning of stimulation and the recovery period, the fMRI recordings of the orgasm showed more activation in the brain across multiple regions. By comparing the imaging from the orgasm to the 20 seconds before and the 20 seconds after orgasm, it was found that specific regions of the brain (the operculum, angular gyrus, precuneus, parts of Broca’s area and the primary motor and somatosensory cortices) were activated, but only on the right hemisphere of the brain. The two most predominant areas (as seen in Figure 1) are the angular gyrus and operculum. The angular gyrus is related to processes that involve spatial cognition, memory retrieval, attention, and theory of mind. The operculum is said to be a second somatosensory cortex, meaning it processes sensory information from the body.
Considering the innovative methodology and significant results, this study opens opportunities to study the female orgasm by reducing head movement and showing regional activation with fMRI. However, more research needs to be completed in order to conclusively find areas of activation during the female orgasm. The clinical benefits of understanding neural circuitry behind the female orgasm could provide insight for the cause and potential cure for specific conditions like anorgasmia, or shed light on behaviour behind sexual tendencies. Findings in this area will not only improve our understanding of the female orgasm, but also provide an increasingly strong body of research on fMRI techniques, women’s sexual health, and gender equality.
Wise, N. J., Frangos, E., & Komisaruk, B. R. (2017). Brain activity unique to orgasm in
women: An fMRI analysis. The Journal of Sexual Medicine.