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Neuroscientists Reveal Why Sex Addiction Isn’t a Real Disorder

Update Date: Jul 19, 2013 05:43 PM EDT

Celebrity bad boys like Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen and Tiger Woods have all, at some point or another, blamed "sex addiction" on their scandalous behavior.

However, "hypersexuality" or "sex addiction" failed to make it into the recently updated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, which is considered the bible for diagnosing mental disorders. What's more, new research suggests that sex addiction is not a real neurological or physiological disorder, but instead just a case of heightened libido.

The latest study involved 39 men and 13 women who have been diagnosed with sex addiction.  Participants were asked to look at sexual images that trigger pleasant and unpleasant feelings. Researchers explain that the test is used in similar studies when looking at how drug addicts; brains respond to images of drugs. Previous findings revealed that when drug addicts look at images of drugs, their brain shows almost an instantaneous change in activity when they see photographs of the substances they are addicted to.

However, the latest study showed that the brain responses from "sex addicts" were related only to their level of sexual desire and not to the severity of their condition.

"Brain response was only related to the measure of sexual desire. In other words, hypersexuality does not appear to explain brain responses to sexual images any more than just having a high libido," study author Nicole Prause, of the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a news release.

She told Popsci that the study also "suggests that hypersexuality explains nothing in particular about brain responses to erotica".

Prause said the point of the study was to establish whether brain responses to sexual images could be predicted based on the symptoms of sex addiction. Researchers said significant changes in brain activity are needed to establish whether or not sex can be viewed as addictive in the way substances are.

"If our study can be replicated these findings would represent a major challenge to existing theories of a sex 'addiction,'" Prause said.

The American Association for Family and Marriage Therapy estimates that as many as 12 million Americans are addicted to sex. Sex addiction is characterized as having sexual urges that feel out of control.  People with sexual addictions or "hypersexuality" frequently engage in sexual behavior, have suffered consequences such as divorce or economic ruin as a result of their behaviors and have a poor ability to reduce those behaviors.

The findings are published in the journal Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology.

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