Scientists have been able to locate the part of the female brain that responds to genital touch, bringing to the forefront the significance of something called the genital somatosensory cortex in sexual function. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or functional MRI (fMRI), with the aid of a vibrating membrane, they were able to watch the precise area of the brain that’s activated by genital touch in females, and observe how its thickness was influenced by sexual history.
The research, published in the journal JNeurosci, sought to identify the exact location of the brain which is activated during genital touch, and see if or how this varied among females. While the somatosensory cortex is known to light up in some way during touch for any part of the body, the exact bit which pertained to female genital touch remained something of a mystery.
To try and pin it down, the researchers invited 25 female participants aged 18 to 45 for an afternoon of physical stimulation, specifically the clitoral region and the right hand (the study’s control). Each area was touched by a vibrating membrane, a new device devised by the research team specifically for the study.
“We developed a technique to deliver an airburst via a membrane that allows for a precise stimulation while at the same time avoiding any discomfort,” said corresponding author Dr Christine Heim, Professor and Chair of the Institute of Medical Psychology, to IFLScience. “We extensively tested this technique to ensure that its application would not be unpleasant.”
Participants were hooked up to a fMRI, which is able to measure brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. The researchers then reviewed and analyzed the scans using a mapping approach.
Of those enlisted, the results from just 20 were used in the analyses making it a small sample size. However, even within that small group, the researchers noticed some differences and similarities in the ways the participants’ brains responded to having their clitoral regions touched.
The exact area of the brain that showed activity during genital touch actually varied among the participants, though all sat within the lateral wall of the somatosensory cortex (BA1-3). This area was also close to that which is activated by touching the hips, a logical finding considering the anatomy of the human body.
What’s more, the specific area that showed activity was thicker in those who reported higher rates of sexual contact in the preceding 12 months. “With this, we provide the first proof of principle the genital field in humans varies in thickness in association with its use, which is in line with a general principle of plasticity,” said Heim.
“This proof of principle is required to formulate new hypotheses on the plasticity and change of the genital field in normal sexual function and in clinical conditions, such as sexual dysfunction or the consequences of abuse.”
Moving forward, it’s hoped that these insights can contribute to research into sexual function by establishing the role of the genital field in humans. Its applications could contribute to therapy for sexual dysfunction, as well as the long-term effects of sexual abuse and effective therapies to mitigate them.
“If we can identify a neural basis for sexual disorders, we can identify whether interventions, such as sexual therapy, change the genital field,” concluded Heim.
“Knowledge regarding the precise localization and structural variation of the field also enable the implementation of clinical studies that can benefit women who have experienced sexual abuse. This knowledge will be important to understand the consequences of sexual abuse at the brain level. Based on that understanding, we can develop novel ways that help reverse the consequences and thereby ease suffering and promote health in women.”