Anyone who has experienced unrequited love can tell you it isn’t a particularly fun time. And believe it or not, every sexpert goes through her fair share of these moments, too. In my vault of such memories, my favorite would have to be the time I brushed up against whom I thought was the man of my dreams, only to have him avert his eyes and stiffen as though rigor mortis was setting in.
But if it were possible to make someone want you at a moment’s notice—or a syringe full of a hormone—would you take fate into your own hands? New research from Imperial College London now hints that such a frontier in love and sex might well be on its way, and sooner than we had previously thought.
Kisspeptin is a naturally occurring hormone in our bodies that stimulates a cascade of other reproductive hormones and helps to kick off puberty when we are young. The study showed that it additionally plays a role in sexual arousal, emotion and love, and may have implications for treating sexual difficulties, as well as depression.
Twenty-nine healthy heterosexual men (roughly age 25) took part in the study. Kisspeptin and a placebo were alternately injected over two study visits; the participants then underwent fMRI scanning. While being scanned, they were shown a variety of images that included both sexual and non-sexual romantic pictures, and a series of male and female faces expressing happy, neutral and fearful emotions. They also answered questionnaires about their personality traits and mood.
It turns out kisspeptin increased activity in emotion-related areas of the brain involved in processing sexual arousal and feelings of love. (And as an aside, it’s important to note that despite what society tells us, these two things are not one and the same.) This activation was particularly pronounced in response to the images that were sexually-themed and those depicting couples happily pair-bonding.
Kisspeptin also improved negative mood by enhancing activity in frontal brain regions responsible for self-control and response inhibition. (Response inhibition is the ability to suppress our initial reaction to something so that we are able to decide how we want to respond.)
What does this all mean in the grand scheme of things? First of all, sexual difficulties have a history of being treated primarily as biological issues, when emotional and psychological factors should also be taken into account. For example, a common symptom of depression is a lack of interest in sex. The study thus highlighted how kisspeptin may offer a novel therapy for people facing reproductive issues that have a psychological origin in addition to those stemming from hormonal imbalances.
In my mind, another potentially useful application would be to help people struggling with poor (or unhealthy) attachment styles. Insecure attachment stems from difficulties in childhood and can leave an individual vulnerable to psychopathology and issues with emotional intimacy as an adult. Treatment with kisspeptin could perhaps one day be used in conjunction with talk therapy to help to improve therapeutic outcomes.
The researchers emphasized, however, that we should be careful to not get ahead of ourselves. Further study is needed in order to fully understand what kisspeptin will be able to do when it comes to psychosexual disorders and depression. Nevertheless, these findings offer fresh and fascinating insight into our understanding of reproductive biology and the processes underlying our basic human experiences of sexual arousal and love.
Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist at York University in Toronto. She has written for Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, The Los Angeles Times, The Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her on Twitter: @debra_soh.