Your brain profile may predict a life of risky sexual behavior

Jul 7, 2015 at 12:14 p.m. ET
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Your brain could say a lot more about you than how smart you are. According to new research conducted at Duke University, an image of your brain could show if you have a yen for drinking or risky sex.

According to this study, which is a part of Duke's ongoing Neurogenetics study, there are two distinct brain profiles that denote risky sexual behavior and alcoholism. It all boils down to the outline of two specific regions in the brain — the reward-seeking ventral striatum and the threat-assessing amygdala. In a normal brain, these two areas function in a complementary way. In brains that are prone to this type of addictive or risky behavior, there is a noticeable imbalance.

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It's pretty amazing to think that a picture of your brain could reveal so much about your intimate personality, especially before it's fully developed. Ahmad Hariri, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and author of the study told PsychCentral, “By knowing the biology that predicts risk, we hope to eventually change the biology or at least meet that biology with other forces to stem the risk.” Basically, if they see the imbalance in your brain profile before the trait develops, they might figure out how to treat it before it becomes a problem.

In 2012, the Neurogenetics researchers took MRIs of 200 participants' brains in order to compare the activity of the ventral striatum versus the amygdala. What they found was an imbalance of activity in one of the areas denoted a personality prone to either problem drinking and/or risky sexual behavior.

High ventral striatum activity and low amygdala activity means you could have or develop a drinking problem associated with stress. This same pattern is also indicative of more promiscuous sexual behavior particularly in men, according to a second study within the Neurogenetics umbrella study.

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Grad student Elizabeth Victor surveyed 70 heterosexual participants of the 200 who had MRIs, asking them specifically about the number of sexual partners they had in an 11-month period. She found the men who had more sexual partners tended to have higher levels of ventral striatum activity compared to their amygdala. However, the pattern in heterosexual women who were more sexually active was somewhat different. They tended to have higher activity in both areas, which goes against the previous theory that it's the imbalance that causes the addictive behavior.

The scientists aren't really sure why women's brains, specifically in relation to sexual activity, react differently. They believe it may have something to do with the amygdala serving different functions in male versus female brains. Regardless of the reason, in my opinion, it's simply more proof that men and women will never fully understand each other.

Interestingly enough, the opposite imbalance — underactive ventral striatum and overactive amygdala — also denoted a drinking problem, but for an entirely different reason. While the imbalance discussed earlier seemed to indicate alcoholism due to lack of impulse control, this imbalance is more connected to drinking as a coping mechanism. This reverse imbalance was not discussed in terms of sexual promiscuity, but since both are addictive tendencies, it would make sense that sexual behavior would follow suit.

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