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Neuroimage. 2007 Aug 15;37(2):551-60. Epub 2007 May 25.

Correlation between insula activation and self-reported quality of orgasm in women.

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  • 1Dartmouth Brain Imaging Center, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Dartmouth College, 6162 Moore Hall, Hanover, NH, USA. ortigue@psych.ucsb.edu


Current multidimensional models of women's sexual function acknowledge the implicit impact of psychosocial factors on women's sexual function. Interaction between human sexual function and intensity of love has been also assumed, even if love is not an absolute condition. Yet, whereas great insights have been made in understanding the central mechanisms of the peripheral manifestations of women's sexual response, including orgasm, the cerebral correlates sustaining the interaction between women's sexual satisfaction and the unconscious role of the partner in this interpersonal experience remain unknown. Using functional imaging, we assessed brain activity elicited when 29 healthy female volunteers were unconsciously exposed to the subliminal presentation of their significant partner's name (a task known to elicit a partner-related neural network) and correlated it with individual scores obtained from different sexual dimensions: self-reported partnered orgasm quality (ease, satisfaction, frequency), love intensity and emotional closeness with that partner. Behavioral results identified a correlation between love and self-reported partnered orgasm quality. The more women were in love/emotionally close to their partner, the more they tended to report being satisfied with the quality of their partnered orgasm. However, no relationship was found between intensity of love and partnered orgasm frequency. Neuroimaging data expanded these behavioral results by demonstrating the involvement of a specific left-lateralized insula focus of neural activity correlating with orgasm scores, irrespective of dimension (frequency, ease, satisfaction). In contrast, intensity of being in love was correlated with a network involving the angular gyrus. These findings strongly suggest that intimate and sexual relationships are sustained by partly different mechanisms, even if they share some emotional-related mechanisms. The critical correlation between self-reports of orgasm quality and activation of the left anterior insula, a part of the partner-related neural network known to play a pivotal role in somatic processes, suggests the importance of somatic information in the integration of sexual experience. On the other hand, the correlation between activation of the angular gyrus and love intensity reinforces the assumption that the representation of love calls for higher order cognitive levels, such as those related to the generation of abstract concepts. By highlighting the specific role of the anterior insula in the way women integrate components of physical satisfaction in the context of an intimate relationship with a partner, the current findings take a step in the understanding of a woman's sexual pleasure.

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