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Pharmacol Rev. 2001 Sep;53(3):417-50.

Pharmacology of penile erection.

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  • 1Department of Clinical Pharmacology, Lund University Hospital, S-22185 Lund, Sweden.


Erection is basically a spinal reflex that can be initiated by recruitment of penile afferents, but also by visual, olfactory, and imaginary stimuli. The reflex involves both autonomic and somatic efferents and is modulated by supraspinal influences. Several central transmitters involved in the erectile control have been identified. Dopamine, acetylcholine, nitric oxide (NO), and peptides, such as oxytocin and adrenocorticotropic/alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone, seem to have a facilitatory role, whereas serotonin may be either facilitatory or inhibitory, and enkephalins are inhibitory. Peripherally, the balance between contractant and relaxant factors controls the degree of contraction of the smooth muscle of the corpora cavernosa and determines the functional state of the penis. Noradrenaline contracts both corpus cavernosum and penile vessels via stimulation of alpha(1)-adrenoceptors. Neurogenic NO is considered the most important factor for relaxation of penile vessels and corpus cavernosum. The role of other mediators released from nerves or endothelium has not been definitely established. Erectile dysfunction (ED) may be due to inability of penile smooth muscles to relax. This inability can have multiple causes. However, patients with ED respond well to the pharmacological treatments that are currently available. The drugs used are able to substitute, partially or completely, the malfunctioning endogenous mechanisms that control penile erection. Most drugs have a direct action on penile tissue facilitating penile smooth muscle relaxation, including prostaglandin E(1), NO donors, phosphodiesterase inhibitors, and alpha-adrenoceptor antagonists. Dopamine receptors in central nervous centers participating in the initiation of erection have been targeted for the treatment of ED. Apomorphine, administered sublingually, is the first of such drugs.

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