Differences in sexual desire can be attributed to genetic variances

New evidence that individual differences in human sexual desire can be attributed to genetic variations has been revealed by a research group headed by a professor of psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The findings are believed to have an impact on people's understanding of their own sexuality as well as to how sexual disorders may come to be treated in the future.

An article on the topic appears currently in Molecular Psychiatry online. The study represents the combined efforts of researchers directed by Prof. Richard P. Ebstein, of Herzog Hospital and the head of the Scheinfeld Center for Human Genetics in the Social Sciences of the Psychology Department at the Hebrew University, and a research group headed by Prof. Robert H. Belmaker of the Psychiatry Division of Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

The article provides, for the first time, data that common variations in the sequence of DNA impact on sexual desire, arousal and function and lead to differences and diversity of the human sexual phenotype.

The implications of these findings are far-reaching, say the researchers, and represent a revolutionary change in the way society, and especially psychology, may come to regard this central element of human behavior.

Little has been known regarding the biological basis for individual differences in normal, human sexual behavior. Most significant variations in the expression of human sexuality are considered historically to be the result of learned behavior or psychological problems. However, recent advances in molecular genetic studies of human behavior and personality, imaging studies of sexual arousal and performance, and neuroendocrinological investigations suggest that individual variations in many aspects of human sexuality, similar to other human behavior, are likely to rest on a firm foundation in the neurosciences.

This progress in understanding the biological basis of human sexuality provides a new way of viewing variations in sexual norms, without passing moral judgment.

In this latest study, the Israeli investigators examined the DNA of 148 healthy male and female Israeli university students and compared the results with questionnaires asking for the students' self-descriptions of their sexual desire, arousal and sexual function. The results showed a correlation between variants in the D4 receptor gene -- which is responsible for producing the dopamine receptor protein (DRD4) -- and the students' self-reports on sexuality.

Interestingly, some forms of variants in this gene were shown to have a depressing effect on sexual desire, arousal and function, while other common variant had the opposite effect an increase in the sexual desire score. The latter is believed to be a relatively new mutation, and it is estimated that it appears in Homo sapiens "only" 50,000 years ago at the time of humankind's great exodus from Africa. Approximately 30% of many populations carry the heightened arousal mutations, while around 60% carry the depressant mutation.

The investigators predict that as a result of their work, and other advances in neurosciences focusing on sexual behavior, a conceptual change will result, in which new therapeutic pathways will be developed for treatment of sexual dysfunctions based on a rational pharmacogenetic strategy. Additionally, the investigators note that many variations such as "low sexual desire" may be quite normal and not necessarily a product of dystunction.

It is possible, therefore, say the researchers, that sexual "problems" will thus be rerouted to a great extent from the classical psychological couch into the realm of 21st century, genomics-based medicine.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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