OPEN PloS one | 19 Feb 2013
B Abler, D Kumpfmüller, G Grön, M Walter, J Stingl and A Seeringer
Previous studies have demonstrated variable influences of sexual hormonal states on female brain activation and the necessity to control for these in neuroimaging studies. However, systematic investigations of these influences, particularly those of hormonal contraceptives as compared to the physiological menstrual cycle are scarce. In the present study, we investigated the hormonal modulation of neural correlates of erotic processing in a group of females under hormonal contraceptives (C group; N = 12), and a different group of females (nC group; N = 12) not taking contraceptives during their mid-follicular and mid-luteal phases of the cycle. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure hemodynamic responses as an estimate of brain activation during three different experimental conditions of visual erotic stimulation: dynamic videos, static erotic pictures, and expectation of erotic pictures. Plasma estrogen and progesterone levels were assessed in all subjects. No strong hormonally modulating effect was detected upon more direct and explicit stimulation (viewing of videos or pictures) with significant activations in cortical and subcortical brain regions previously linked to erotic stimulation consistent across hormonal levels and stimulation type. Upon less direct and less explicit stimulation (expectation), activation patterns varied between the different hormonal conditions with various, predominantly frontal brain regions showing significant within- or between-group differences. Activation in the precentral gyrus during the follicular phase in the nC group was found elevated compared to the C group and positively correlated with estrogen levels. From the results we conclude that effects of hormonal influences on brain activation during erotic stimulation are weak if stimulation is direct and explicit but that female sexual hormones may modulate more subtle aspects of sexual arousal and behaviour as involved in sexual expectation. Results may provide a basis for future imaging studies on sexual processing in females, especially in the context of less explicit erotic stimulation.
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