Celebrity sex addicts who race off to the nearest rehab clinic after scandal breaks may hope to cull sympathy for their "disease," but scientists now say that hypersexuality looks notably different from drug addiction, at least in the brain.
Try telling that to "Californication" actor David Duchovny, golf pro Tiger Woods or TV star Charlie Sheen, who have all acknowledged being addicted to their sexual proclivities in one way or another.
Or disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who, in the battle to be mayor of New York City, is fighting off previously undisclosed reports of sexting women while saying that his problematic behavior is "behind" him.
For the past decade or so, addiction has been a catch-all term associated with people who say their sexual urges are out of control. But a new study examines whether hypersexuality is a medical condition with neurological markers.
Hypersexuality, it turns out, might be more akin to impulse-control disorders like kleptomania or gambling. And the model scientists are using for treating so-called sex addictions as a disease might be all wrong, doctors and clinicians say.
For the first time, researchers at UCLA have measured brain waves in people who say they have trouble regulating their viewing of pornography. They found no evidence that the brain lights up in the same way it does in drug addicts.
The preliminary study "challenges the basic notion of what we believed and thought," said study co-author Dr. Timothy Fong, associate professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and director of its impulse control disorders clinic.
But, he cautioned, "We cannot jump to the conclusion that sex addiction is not real. Instead, we need to understand more about the relationship between sexual desire and sexual behavior."
Researchers looked at data gathered on 52 adults -- 13 women and 39 men -- who had reported repetitive sexual activity that was problematic in their lives. They then used electroencephalography, or EEG, to measure responses in the part of the brain that controls reward and emotional response.
Participants were shown a variety of positive and negative images: dismembered bodies, people preparing food and people skiing. They were also shown images of sex, some romantic and others of explicit intercourse.
The hypothesis was that the brain images would look like previous studies done on people addicted to chemicals like cocaine and alcohol.
When cocaine addicts are exposed to images of the drug, their brains become hyperactive and "light up," Fong said. The worse the addiction, the more activity was seen in the middle brain.
"The surprising part is their brains didn't light up on fire," he said of the sex addicts. "We thought we would see a difference and we didn't.
"In order to define a disease, you have to come up with clear differences between normal functions and when the brain is not functioning normally and then you identify the symptoms," Fong added.
"Instead of platitudes, we are coming up with actual science that might give us a target for treatment."
Data for the study was collected by assistant professor Nicole Prause while she was teaching at another university and then analyzed by her UCLA peers. It appeared in the online edition of the journal Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology.
Fong does not deny that sufferers have a "true disease," but it might be that "addiction" is the wrong diagnosis.