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Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001.

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Neuroscience. 2nd edition.

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Autonomic Regulation of Sexual Function

Much like control of the bladder, sexual responses are mediated by the coordinated activity of sympathetic, parasympathetic, and somatic innervation. Although these reflexes differ in detail in males and females, basic similarities allow the two sexes to be considered together, not only in humans but in mammals generally (see Chapter 30). The relevant autonomic effects include: (1) the mediation of vascular dilation, which causes penile or clitoral erection; (2) stimulation of prostatic or vaginal secretions; (3) smooth muscle contraction of the vas deferens during ejaculation or rhythmic vaginal contractions during orgasm in females; and (4) contractions of the somatic pelvic muscles that accompany orgasm in both sexes.

Like the urinary tract, the reproductive organs receive preganglionic parasympathetic innervation from the sacral spinal cord, preganglionic sympathetic innervation from the outflow of the lower thoracic and upper lumbar spinal cord segments, and somatic motor innervation from α-motor neurons in the ventral horn of the lower spinal cord segments (Figure 21.9). The sacral parasympathetic pathway controlling the sexual organs in both males and females originates in the sacral segments S2–S4 and reaches the target organs via the pelvic nerves. Activity of the postganglionic neurons in the relevant parasympathetic ganglia causes dilation of penile or clitoral arteries, and a corresponding relaxation of the smooth muscles of the venous (cavernous) sinusoids, which leads to expansion of the sinusoidal spaces. As a result, the amount of blood in the tissue is increased, leading to a sharp rise in the pressure and an expansion of the cavernous spaces (i.e., erection). The mediator of the smooth muscle relaxation leading to erection is not acetylcholine (as in most postganglionic parasympathetic actions), but nitric oxide (see Chapter 8). The drug sildenafil (Viagra®), for instance, acts by stimulating the activity of guanylate cyclase, which increases the conversion of GTP to cyclic GMP, mimicking the action of NO on the c-GMP pathway, thus enhancing the relaxation of the venous sinusoids and promoting erection in males with erectile dysfunction. Parasympathetic activity also provides excitatory input to the vas deferens, seminal vesicles, and prostate in males, or vaginal glands in females.

Figure 21.9. Autonomic control of sexual function in the human male.

Figure 21.9

Autonomic control of sexual function in the human male.

In contrast, sympathetic activity causes vasoconstriction and loss of erection. The lumbar sympathetic pathway to the sexual organs originates in the thoraco-lumbar segments (T11-L2) and reaches the target organs via the corresponding sympathetic chain ganglia and the inferior mesenteric and pelvic ganglia, as in the case of the autonomic bladder control.

The afferent effects of genital stimulation are conveyed centrally from somatic sensory endings via the dorsal roots of S2–S4, eventually reaching the somatic sensory cortex (reflex sexual excitation may also occur by local stimulation, as is evident in paraplegics). The reflex effects of such stimulation are increased parasympathetic activity, which, as noted, causes relaxation of the smooth muscles in the wall of the sinusoids and subsequent erection.

Finally, the somatic component of reflex sexual function arises from α-motor neurons in the lumbar and sacral spinal cord segments. These neurons provide excitatory innervation to the bulbocavernosus and ischiocavernosus muscles, which are active during ejaculation in males and mediate the contractions of the perineal (pelvic floor) muscles that accompany orgasm in both male and females.

Sexual functions are governed centrally by the anterior-medial and medial-tuberal zones of the hypothalamus, which contain a variety of nuclei pertinent to visceral motor control and reproductive behavior (see Box A). Although they remain poorly understood, these nuclei act as integrative centers for sexual responses and are also thought to be involved in more complex aspects of sexuality, such as sexual preference and gender identity (see Chapter 30). The relevant hypothalamic nuclei receive inputs from several areas of the brain, including—as one might imagine—the cortical and subcortical structures concerned with emotion and memory (sees Chapters 29 and 31).

By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2001, Sinauer Associates, Inc.
Bookshelf ID: NBK11157


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