Scientists have measured how the brain behaves in so-called hypersexual people who have problems regulating their viewing of sexual images.
The study by UCLA researchers found that the brain response of these individuals to sexual images was not related in any way to the severity of their hypersexuality but was instead tied only to their level of sexual desire.
In other words, hypersexuality did not appear to explain brain differences in sexual response any more than simply having a high libido, senior author Nicole Prause, a researcher in the department of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, said.
"Potentially, this is an important finding," Prause said.
"It is the first time scientists have studied the brain responses specifically of people who identify as having hypersexual problems," she said.
A diagnosis of hypersexuality or sexual addiction is typically associated with people who have sexual urges that feel out of control, who engage frequently in sexual behavior, who have suffered consequences such as divorce or economic ruin as a result of their behaviors, and who have a poor ability to reduce those behaviors.
But Prause and her colleagues said that such symptoms are not necessarily representative of an addiction - in fact, non-pathological, high sexual desire could also explain this cluster of problems.
One way to tease out the difference is to measure the brain's response to sexual-image stimuli in individuals who acknowledge having sexual problems.
If they indeed suffer from hypersexuality, or sexual addiction, their brain response to visual sexual stimuli could be expected be higher, in much the same way that the brains of cocaine addicts have been shown to react to images of the drug in other studies.
The study is published online in the journal Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology.