Sexual activity involves excitement with high arousal and pleasure as typical features of emotions. Brain activations specifically related to erotic feelings and those related to general emotional processing are therefore hard to disentangle. Using fMRI in 21 healthy subjects (11 males and 10 females), we investigated regions that show activations specifically related to the viewing of sexually intense pictures while controlling for general emotional arousal (GEA) or pleasure. Activations in the ventral striatum and hypothalamus were found to be modulated by the stimulus' specific sexual intensity (SSI) while activations in the anterior cingulate cortex were associated with an interaction between sexual intensity and emotional valence. In contrast, activation in other regions like the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, the mediodorsal thalamus and the amygdala was associated only with a general emotional component during sexual arousal. No differences were found in these effects when comparing females and males. Our findings demonstrate for the first time neural differentiation between emotional and sexual components in the neural network underlying sexual arousal.
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