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SEXUAL AROUSAL: A brain imaging study

Outward signs, such as psychological test results or physical responses, may not tell us much about what turns us on or off. Most people are practised at controlling their initial reactions or at times, we can all be good at hiding what we really feel. This is equally true of sexual arousal. A physical response may be controlled, disguising a situation when the mind is aroused. Newer imaging techniques allow us an insight into aspects of our psyche and into why we act as we do, and they don't depend on our outward expression of emotion or thoughts.

Research in animals has implicated some regions in the brain that may be involved but we have much to learn about the neural correlates of sexual arousal in humans. In this study, researchers are investigating the neural correlates of sexual arousal in groups of men using fMRI. Slides of images designed to evoke fear, arousal and disgust are shown to the men whilst they are in the scanner and their reactions (in terms of brain activity) will be recorded.

The study is also a first attempt to understand sexual offending in terms of brain activity using fMRI. By comparing the brain's activity in male volunteers with brain activity in men who have committed sexual offences - such as serial rape or paedophilia - researchers hope to uncover mechanisms underlying deviant sexual arousal. Ultimately, if there are factors in the brain that predispose some people to commit sexual offences, this could have important implications for risk assessment and managing sexual offenders.