Molecular mechanisms could drive compulsive sexual behavior: Study

Although it also raises debate around if hypersexuality is a mental disorder, the American Psychiatric Association does not yet recognise it as a disorder.

Compulsive sexual behaviour, also known as hypersexuality, can have a significant negative impact on a person’s quality of life. A recent study, which appeared in the journal Epigenetics explains that an increasing number of studies suggest a significant role of epigenetic modifications on sexual behaviour and human brain functioning. In their research, they decided to focus on the possible role that epigenetic mechanisms, which can affect gene expression, may play in determining compulsive sexual behaviour.

Although it raises debate around whether hypersexuality is a mental disorder, the American Psychiatric Association does not yet recognise it as one. The research team recruited 60 participants, both male and female, who expressed compulsive sexual behaviours, as well as another 33 participants who did not. The researchers collected blood samples from all participants and assessed patterns of DNA methylation — an epigenetic mechanism that plays a key role in gene regulation.

“Further research will be needed to investigate the role of miRNA4456 and oxytocin in hypersexual disorder, but our results suggest it could be worthwhile to examine the benefits of drug[s] and psychotherapy to reduce the activity of oxytocin,” suggested one of the study’s co-authors, Jussi Jokinen, Department of clinical neuroscience, Stockholm’s Karolinska Institutet.

The team found two specific DNA regions with particular modifications that were only present in individuals with compulsive sexual behaviour. These were associated with MIR708 and MIR4456, the genes that encode the microRNA molecules of the same names.

Because the MIR4456 gene is affected in people with compulsive sexual behaviour, this could mean that they produce unusually high levels of oxytocin, which may lead to unwanted symptoms. However, the researchers emphasise that, so far, this is only a hypothesis and they have not yet been able to confirm it.

“To our knowledge, our study is the first to implicate dysregulated epigenetic mechanisms of both DNA methylation and microRNA activity and the involvement of oxytocin in the brain among patients seeking treatment for hypersexuality”, commented Andreas Chatzittofis, Department of Clinical Sciences & psychiatry, Umea University, Sweden.

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