A hormone linked to reproduction appears to light up pathways in the brain linked to sexual attraction, according to scientists who hope it could help those struggling with problems such as a low sex drive.
The study involved 33 healthy, heterosexual men with an average age of 24.5 who filled out questionnaires on the quality of their sex lives. Researchers either hooked up the men to a drip of kisspeptin or a placebo and asked them to complete tasks while inside an MRI scanner.
In one test, they smelled the perfume Chanel No.5, which in previous studies was linked to boosting sexual arousal as a feminine scent. Kisspeptin was found to enhance activity in parts of the brain linked to smell and sexual processes.
A second test involved looking at 60 female faces in a random order, and showed the hormone appeared to help the brain with computing beauty.
Kisspeptin appeared to enhance the sexual arousal-linked brain activity of men who reported having low-quality sex lives the most.
According to research cited by the authors of the paper published in the journal JCI Insight, one in three people experience psychosexual disorders worldwide but there are few effective treatments due to our lack of understanding of the underlying brain processes.
Study co-author Dr. Alexander Comninos, consultant endocrinologist and honorary senior lecturer at Imperial College, U.K., told Newsweek: “We were surprised that the boosting effect of kisspeptin on attraction centers in the brain on viewing female faces was even more pronounced in men who reported a lower sexual quality of life—basically men who were not happy with their sex life.
“This makes us think that kisspeptin really might have some therapeutic benefits in patients with related psychosexual problems—sexual problems that are predominantly psychological in origin.”
He continued: “Our work is at an early stage but it improves our understanding of human behavior related to attraction and sex.
“Hopefully our work can be taken forward to assess if kisspeptin administration could be used for patients with conditions such as distressing low sexual desire, which is a really important and frequently overlooked problem affecting up to 17 percent of the population.”
However, Comninos also said: “It is important to consider that human attraction is not just about smell and facial appreciation.
“There is a multitude of other factors such as body language, personality traits, conversation and so forth. Also, our work is at an early stage and so we really need our colleagues in basic science research to help us understand the precise pathways and mechanisms for what we are seeing.”
He said it will be several years before kisspeptin is used as treatment.
Asked if the hormone could help with low libido in people with mental conditions such as depression, Comninos said: “Kisspeptin seems to have a variety of emotional and behavioral roles in humans that we are just starting to appreciate.
“Indeed, we have previously shown that kisspeptin can have anti-depressant like effects in humans. Obviously the recommended treatments for mental illnesses will be the standard ones like anti-depressants but let’s see where we go down the line.”
In order to carry out the study, the team had to work out a way to get the volunteers to sniff a perfume periodically while in an MRI body scanner. To achieve this, the team created a special device featuring plastic tubes passing from a control room to the participants. “It worked really well in the end,” Comninos said.
Explaining the context of the study, Comninos said a seminal work in 2003 revealed that kisspeptin is important in controlling reproductive hormones.
But experts only recently learned that it may also be important for related emotions and behaviors. The team was inspired by research in animals which suggested kisspeptin may be important for how we interpret smells and odors.
“We were also keen to build on our previous work showing that kisspeptin has roles in sexual arousal brain activity,” he said.
“Attraction is often an initial and integral part of sexual arousal, so we wanted to see if kisspeptin had effects on this.”
Author: Kashmira Gander