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Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
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Brain Waves

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May 4, 2004

What if Lust was a Side Effect?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Today's NYTimes article, "Has the Romance Gone? Was it the Drug?" highlights a major problem with today's psychopharmaceuticals, side effects. "Up to 70 percent of patients on antidepressants report sexual side effects," the article reports. But the problem does not end there.

"We know that there are real sexual problems associated with serotonin-enhancing medications," said Dr. Helen Fisher, author of "Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love". "But when you cripple a person's sexual desire and arousal, you're also jeopardizing their ability to fall in love and to stay in love."

Dr. Fisher and a colleague, Dr. Anderson J. Thomson Jr., have studied the brains of people in love and pored over research from the last 25 years on the neurological basis of romance.

Three brain systems, all interrelated, the researchers say, control lust, attraction and attachment. Each runs on a different set of chemicals. Lust is fueled by androgens and estrogens. Attachment is controlled by oxytocin and vasopressin. And attraction, they say, is driven by high levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, as well as low levels of serotonin. As a result, they say, increasing levels of serotonin with antidepressants can cripple the sex drive but also set off an imbalance among the three systems."

So how might we develop an anti-depressant that increases lust? Or is that even possible?

Comments (7) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Perception Shift


1. kevin jones on May 4, 2004 9:14 PM writes...

The neuromarketing potential of a drug could enhance lust is amazing to contemplate.

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2. Peter Hankins on May 5, 2004 6:55 AM writes...

It would be interesting to know whether people in strictly monogamous, traditionally moral societies, show a different balance of oxtocin/vasopresin versus andogens/estrogens as compared with relatively promiscuous societies. kevin jones is no doubt right about the commercial possibilities of lust enhancement, but in addition I imagine that some parents would welcome the chance of adding to their children's regular Ritalin a pill that would make them more inclined towards an old-fashioned view of romance, if that were feasible.

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3. Guest on May 5, 2004 10:44 AM writes...

very interesting is well known that certain
antidepressants decrease libido or make sexual performance problematic
(paxil, for example)...there are some that are less prosexual
(zyprexa)...creating an antidepressant that also increases lust may
have to come in the form of a polypill (perhaps with a touch of
testosterone--for men and women) like the ones proposed for heart
disease, or be a single pill that hits multiple brain you
know, with money to be made and reps established, the scientists are
probably at work on it in the labs at this moment.....gerald

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4. Casey on May 6, 2004 4:19 PM writes...

Hmm.. Good idea, Gerald. Or maybe a pill plus a patch.

Announced today: Patch 'boosts women's sex drive'
"Women may soon be able to use a stick-on patch to boost their sex drive. The patch is worn on the stomach for two weeks at a time and delivers the hormone testosterone, which has been linked to female sexual desire. A trial involving 562 women who had had hysterectomies found the patch led to a 74% increase in satisfying sex. Manufacturers Procter & Gamble are hoping to launch the patch in the US shortly and in the UK within the next two years..." read more here:

Researchers warn: "If a couple doesn't like each other than no patch will improve their sex life." I wouldn't be so sure...

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5. Mike McCown on May 11, 2004 1:07 PM writes...

There has been a drug around for a while that increases lust. Due to our prurient society, however, it hasn't been marketed.

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6. Mike McCown on May 11, 2004 6:30 PM writes...

It turns out I may have spoken too soon. The rights to this melanocortin receptor agonist have been passed around the past couple of years, and it looks like a company called Palatin has the US rights and has been conducting clinical trials of the drug under the working name Pt-141.

It's going to give Viagra and Cialis a real run for their money, in that it doesn't work on the nitrous system at all, but seems to induce real arousal in the brain. It'll be quite a blockbuster if it doesn't go the route of the "morning after" pill in FDA approvals (ie - if it is approved on medical efficacy and minimal side effects and not policy direction).

Should be fun trying to pick abusers in the crowd by looking for that "George Hamilton" tan...

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7. Chris Lyte on June 30, 2004 10:58 PM writes...

Here’s my theory. Humans are programmed to unite with passion, and then
to separate. Anthropologist Helen Fisher found that across many
cultures divorce, or its equivalent, peaked in year four.
Apparently genetic diversity served humans' selfish genes better than
prairie-vole fidelity.

The seeds for this separation are sown in our first passionate encounter
with a partner. In some of us they bloom so rapidly that a "one-night stand"
results. In others they take time to yield their unfortunate fruit of
separation. Gradually, however, separation creeps into the relationship.
Even if couples remain married, separation shows up as out-of-sync libidos,
infidelity, preoccupation with child or professional demands, irritability,
growing incompatibility, and so forth.

Although it offends our notions of romance, a common mechanism, or
"biological wedge," drives these separation behaviors. One of them is
testosterone, as you have noted. Dr. Donatella Marazziti of the University
of Pisa just recently announced that testosterone drops in men and rises in
women when couples fall in love, but within two years, the levels have
diverged again.
Honeymoons don't last.

However, I believe that the neurochemical shifts that set off this
nearly-universal "cooling" between the sexes are (the down-regulation of)
dopamine and related surges of prolactin. Orgasm is the biggest legal blast
of dopamine that we can engineer. Last fall a Dutch scientist, Gert
Holstege, announced that his brain scans of orgasm resemble the brain scans
of a shot of heroin.
But, as Quartz and Sejnowski note, "more is not better"
when it comes to dopamine. (Liars, Lovers and Heroes) In fact, rats wired to
stimulate (at will) the neurons that dopamine stimulates in the
pleasure/reward center buzzed themselves to death, without pausing to eat or
investigate sexually receptive mates.

So our prodigious craving for orgasm is potentially
deadly (or non-species serving), even though it guarantees lots of
pregnancies both planned and otherwise. That brings me to prolactin. Among
its many tasks in the body, prolactin acts as a sexual-satiation mechanism. It's a
way to keep us from "blissing" ourselves to death. Unfortunately, this
protective shut-down neurochemistry (prolactin surge, dopamine drop, and who
knows what else.) doesn't feel good and makes one uneasy. These feelings are
projected, above all, onto one's intimate partner, and "Eventually a man can
develop feelings of indifference or hate for his sexual partner." ("Taoist
Secrets of Love" by Mantak Chia)

The Taoists teach that this problem is tied to semen loss. However, I
believe its roots lie in the neurochemical shifts in the limbic system, and
that it affects both sexes. The more modern women focus on orgasm, the more
they set off the same neurochemical bombs of separation. Surely if orgasm
were the key to harmony, we'd be seeing a marked improvement in divorce
rates instead of the reverse.

The symptoms of this perfectly natural, protective shutdown can take many
different forms: a "need for space," clingy or needy behavior,
uncontrollable attractions to third parties or the use of addictive
substances (to jack up dopamine levels again), nagging, irrational jealousy,
irritability, hyperactivity, apathy, weepiness, and so forth.

Above all, there is an unfortunate shift in one's perception of one's
partner. He or she just doesn't look as good, and one doesn't feel as
inclined to harmonize with this person (whom one's subconscious is beginning
to associate with a recurring post-passion low). At best we attempt to
address the symptoms of this built-in separation mechanism through therapy
or gaining negotiating skills, but I fear we are not addressing the primary

Incidentally, the reason I think prolactin is a major player is because high
prolactin levels are associated with conditions that couples have complained
about since the dawn of time: lower libido, headaches, hostility, anxiety,
and so forth. Prolactin levels stay high in withdrawing cocaine users for
two weeks, and prolactin levels surge in female rats after mating for about
two weeks (even if they do not become pregnant). Also, I have personally
noticed a two-week hangover of mood swings following conventional orgasm, as
have others who have observed themselves carefully. Of course, other
neurochemicals may be implicated, but I would wager that prolactin will
prove a key culprit in post-passion separation behavior.

Now that church and state can't keep us wedded for life, biology's agendas
of maximum progeny and genetic diversity are becoming increasingly obvious.
One of every two current marriages is predicted to end in divorce and the
percentage of single people is rising sharply.

I suggest that any wide-scale improvement in harmony between the sexes
may hinge on our learning to overcome the neurochemical
separation mechanism outlined above.

I have some definite thoughts on how this might be accomplished. Since the
time of Lao Tzu (Hua Hu Ching), the same wisdom about how to manage our
sexual energy better has bubbled up periodically in different cultures and
at different times (Gnostic Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Alice B.
Stockham, MD's Karezza [1896], and others). All teach that ordinary
intercourse with its emphasis on passion causes separation and estrangement
between partners, and chaos in society. For example, Lao Tzu says that
during ordinary intercourse, "Whatever physical energy is accumulated is
summarily discharged, and the subtle energies are similarly dissipated and
disordered. It is a great backward leap." He perfectly describes the
neurochemical swings I mentioned.

These traditions recommend making love without conventional orgasm, and
insist that the result is improved health, greater harmony between partners,
increased moral strength, and even a decrease in cravings and impulsive
behavior. In my experience, gained over a decade, these sages are right. I
believe that the reason they are right is that this gentler,
non-goal-oriented lovemaking balances our neurochemistry, keeping us off of
the dopamine/prolactin roller coaster of intense attraction followed by
aversion, or separating behavior that drives lovers apart.

Sadly, each attempt to jack up our dopamine to feel good again, sets us on
another self-regulated cycle of lows. and often an addictive quest for more
highs. I think this hidden cycle also accounts for much adolescent distress
and the sudden deterioration in the behavior of many adolescents.

The good news is that this radical, calmer approach to lovemaking appears to
increase levels of oxytocin, both in the body and in the brain (where it
encourages monogamous behavior). Higher levels of oxytocin would account for
the decrease in cravings, and the health improvements (because it
counteracts stress, and therefore depression as well) noted by the sages.
(Yes, oxytocin usually rises briefly at orgasm, but researchers have
suggested that its function then may be simply to set off the smooth-muscle
contractions of orgasm, not to bond us.)

Since we are about to overpopulate ourselves into extinction, it may be time
to give serious consideration to an approach that promotes harmony and
discourages carelessly-conceived progeny.

Incidentally, in “Sex, Time & Power” Leonard Shlain into stark relief men's
extreme masturbation habits and women's appalling menses drain, as well as
our species' proclivity for exclusive same sex pairing, in comparison with
other species. I suggest that all these behaviors are linked to the fact
that we are programmed to have sex constantly, unlike species regulated by
estrus. The natural hangover alluded to above leaves us feeling drained and
depleted a lot of the time-and triggers varying degrees of alienation from
the opposite sex. These feelings show up in our lives as excessive energy
drains and unusually high levels of estrangement between the sexes (and/or
misogyny/man hating).


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