3D movie shows female brain having an orgasm

Let's just be clear: I am in no way qualified to write an article about female orgasms. But I'm doing it anyway, because it's about science, too. And it's fascinating.

The video below is apparently the first 3D movie of an orgasm, um, exploding through the female brain. It was created by combining a series of MRI snapshots (taken every two seconds) of a PhD student and sex therapist giving herself an orgasm inside* the MRI machine, as part of her dissertation. The different colors correspond to blood oxygen levels (lighter colors mean more oxygen), signifying which parts of the brain are most active.

Over the course of twelve minutes, activity first builds up in the sensory cortex, or specifically in the area of the sensory cortex that processes genital (and nipple, for the record) stimulation. Over time, the limbic system starts to get more and more involved, indicating that emotions and long-term memory are coming into play. Specifically, the hippocampus activates, which can in turn activate many other parts of the brain. The hippocampus is also where epileptic seizures come from, and at least as far as the brain is concerned, there are lots of similarities between orgasms and seizures.

Just before the orgasm occurs, activity spikes in the cerebellum and frontal cortex (as muscles tense up), and then the hypothalamus floods the brain with oxytocin and dopamine, which is where that actual orgasmic feeling comes from. Interestingly, there's also an activity peak in the nucleus accumbens, which is a part of the brain that's been linked to things like reward, pleasure, laughter, and addiction, as well as aggression, fear, and (weirdly) the placebo effect.

This sounds like a very enjoyable line of research (at least for the participants), but there's a serious side to it all. For example, one of the subsections of the prefrontal cortex that activates during an orgasm is the insula, which is also active in response to pain. "Active" can mean either that this part of the brain is sending signals, or that it's busy repressing signals from somewhere else, and in fact women are apparently much less sensitive to pain while they're having an orgasm. Incidentally, this also may explain why orgasm faces are indistinguishable from excruciating pain faces: the same part of the brain might be regulating them both.

Anyway, as far as the serious side of all this, researchers are hoping that studying how orgasms work might help them learn more about ways that they might be able to treat anxiety and depression, and possibly provide new ways to manage pain. One thing is clear: more research is definitely needed.

Via Time and The Guardian

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*If you're wondering how she accomplished this without anything battery-powered (which would have been shredded by the magnetic field), the answer is apparently through either manual stimulation or with the aid of a Lucite rod.