Sex chips

No, not these chips,

  chips

but these chips … the implantable kind.

  computer chips

When I recently read about this technology on Bioethics.net, I thought it was a joke:

Scientists in the UK are working on methods to stimulate the brain, specifically in the orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain that feels pleasure from eating and sex. According to The Telegraph, implantation of a chip into that area of the brain is expected to result in increased sexual pleasure. Previous studies in one woman with very low sex drive becoming one with a very active sexual appetite. However, the scientists reported, “She didn’t like the sudden change, so the wiring in her head was removed.”

But when I surveyed the scientific literature, I found out that these electronic stimulation projects are legitimate, are based on technology used to treat neurological problems, and that the primary research group is quite prolific its attempts to apply this technology to different parts of the brain, with very good results.

The best known researcher in the field of chip implantation technology appears to be Dr. Morten Kringlebach. He has done pioneering work in determining the location within the brain of various sensations and drives, including smell, taste, thirst and painful touch. He has also worked on the implantation technology, which is known technically as deep brain stimulation (DBS).

To date, the most well known application of DBS technology is in the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease. You can watch the technology in action at Dr. Kringelbach’s website. As he explains in an article in this month’s issue of Scientific American Mind, Sparking Recovery with Brain “Pacemakers”:

…A man in his mid-50s, affable, articulate, faces the camera and talks a bit about a medical procedure he’s had. He holds in his hand what looks like a remote control. “I’ll turn myself off now,” he says mildly. The man presses a button on the controller, a beep sounds, and his right arm starts to shake, then to flap violently. It’s as if a biological hurricane has engulfed him … With effort, the man grasps the malfunctioning right arm with his left hand and slowly, firmly, subdues the commotion …With an almost desperate gesture, he reaches out for the controller and manages to press the button again. There’s a soft beep, and suddenly it’s over. He’s fine.

In Parkinson’s, DBS technology is used to dampen the erratic brain impulses that cause the visible symptoms. Kringelbach and others reasoned that if you could use DBS to dampen undesirable brain impulses like those of Parkinson’s and certain chronic pain syndromes, you could use DBS to evoke desirable brain impulses.

In a highly technical paper, Affective neuroscience of pleasure: reward in humans and animals, Dr. Kringelbach reviews two famous cases of DBS used to evoke pleasure:

a much-cited case is “B-19”, a young man implanted with stimulation electrodes in septum/accumbens region by Heath and colleagues in the1960s. B-19 voraciously self-stimulated his electrode and protested when the stimulation button was taken away. In addition, his electrode caused “feelings of pleasure, alertness, and warmth (goodwill); he had feelings of sexual arousal and described a compulsion to masturbate”…

Similarly, a female patient implanted with an electrode decades later compulsively stimulated her electrode at home. “At its most frequent, the patient self-stimulated throughout the day, neglecting personal hygiene and family commitments”. When her electrode was stimulated in the clinic, it produced a strong desire to drink liquids and some erotic feelings, as well as a continuing desire to stimulate again.

But popular descriptions of the technology as “sex chips” may oversell its effects:

… B-19 never was quoted as saying it did; not even an exclamation or anything like “Oh—that feels nice!”. Instead B19’s electrode-stimulation-evoked desire to stimulate again and strong sexual arousal—while never producing sexual orgasm or clear evidence of actual pleasure sensation. And the stimulation never served as a substitute for sexual acts. What it did instead was to make him want to do more sexual acts, just as it made him want to press the button more…

When [the female patient’s] electrode was stimulated in the clinic, it produced a strong desire to drink liquids and some erotic feelings, as well as a continuing desire to stimulate again. However, “Though sexual arousal was prominent, no orgasm occurred” (Portenoy, 1986)… Clearly, this woman felt a mixture of subjective feelings, but the description’s emphasis is on aversive thirst and anxiety—without evidence of distinct pleasure sensations.

Dr. Kringelbach points out that the technology definitely has potential:

Of course, to suggest that such pleasure electrodes failed to cause real pleasure does not mean that no electrode ever did so, much less that future pleasure electrodes never will. But it does mean that, if even the most prototypical and classic cases of ‘pleasure electrodes’ from the past are open to doubt, closer scrutiny of deep brain stimulation (DBS) electrodes may be needed in the future: Do they really cause pleasure? (Green et al. 2008; Kringelbach et al. 2007b).

So don’t bother looking for “sex chips” in your local drugstore just yet, but they are almost certainly on the horizon.

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