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Mental Health

Can Pornography be Addictive? An fMRI Study of Men Seeking Treatment for Problematic Pornography Use

Open Access: No

Abstract

Pornography consumption is highly prevalent, particularly among young adult males. For some individuals, problematic pornography use (PPU) is a reason for seeking treatment. Despite the pervasiveness of pornography, PPU appears under-investigated, including with respect to the underlying neural mechanisms. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we examined ventral striatal responses to erotic and monetary stimuli, disentangling cue-related ‘wanting’ from reward-related ‘liking’ among 28 heterosexual males seeking treatment for PPU and 24 heterosexual males without PPU. Subjects engaged in an incentive delay task in the scanner, in which they received erotic or monetary rewards preceded by predictive cues. Blood-oxygen-level-dependent responses to erotic and monetary cues were analyzed and examined with respect to self-reported data on sexual activity collected over the 2 preceding months. Men with and without  PPU differed in their striatal responses to cues predicting erotic pictures but not in their responses to erotic pictures. PPU subjects when compared with control subjects showed increased activation of ventral striatum specifically for cues predicting erotic pictures but not for cues predicting monetary gains. Relative sensitivity to cues predicting erotic pictures vs monetary gains was significantly related to the increased behavioral motivation to view erotic images (suggestive of higher ‘wanting’), severity of PPU, amount of pornography use per week, and number of weekly masturbations. Our findings suggest that, similar to what is observed in substance and gambling addictions, the neural and behavioral mechanisms associated with the anticipatory processing of cues specifically predicting erotic rewards relate importantly to clinically relevant features of PPU. These findings suggest that PPU may represent a behavioral addiction and that interventions helpful in targeting behavioral and substance addictions warrant consideration for adaptation and use in helping men with PPU.

 

Relevance

This study found that men with Problematic Pornography Use (PPU), compared control subjects, showed certain brain activity that is also found in people with substance-use disorders or addictions.

 

Citation

Gola, M., Wordecha, M., Sescousse, G., Lew-Starowicz, M., Kossowski, B., Wypych, M., Makeig, S., Potenza, M. N., & Marchewka, A. (2017). Can Pornography be Addictive? An fMRI Study of Men Seeking Treatment for Problematic Pornography Use. Neuropsychopharmacology, 42, 2021–2031. https://doi.org/10.1038/npp.2017.78