Neural Correlates of Sexual Response: An ERP Investigation of Responses to De-Contextualized Sexual Cues
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Sexual response relies on the perceptual and cognitive processing of sexual stimuli. With its high temporal resolution, the event-related potential (ERP) technique offers an ideal tool for studying early processes involved in sexual response. Previous research on ERP responses to sexual stimuli has used visually complex stimuli (e.g., couples, full nude bodies). Interpretations are limited because ERPs heightened to these stimuli include processing of both sexual and nonsexual cues that differ from controls. In this dissertation, I present ERP data from three studies aimed at elucidating neural responses involved in processing sexual cues. In Study 1, opposite-gender attracted undergraduate women (N = 40) viewed images of sexual and nonsexual body parts varying in activity state (flaccid or erect penises; relaxed arms or flexed biceps). In Study 2, opposite-gender attracted undergraduate women (n = 27) and men (n = 28) viewed images of sexually-preferred and non-preferred body parts varying in readiness for sexual activity (flaccid or erect penises; pubic triangles or exposed vulvas). Study 3 replicated Study 2 methods in a community sample (n = 25 women, n = 22 men). All studies used high- density 128-channel EEG nets and modern whole-head analysis. In Study 1, undergraduate women had widespread centro-parieto-occipital activation to sexual cues beginning as early as 100ms. Effects were replicated in Study 2 and extended to men, with limited differences based on sexual relevance/reward value of stimuli. Results replicated in a community sample (Study 3), where some ERPs in men’s early and later processing were sensitive to sexually-rewarding cues. Across studies, I link a novel ERP with sexual processing that may involve inferring the intentions or emotions of others. Results offer new insights into sexual processing on the neural level while revealing multiple areas for future investigation into early stages of sexual response.