For the first time, researchers identify the region of the brain associated with the clitoris

The way in which the female genitals are represented in the cerebral cortex is completely under-studied. A new study done by stimulating the clitoris of 20 women, while performing an fMRI of their brains, found that the representation of their genitals was located near that of the hip. The researchers also showed that the frequency of intercourse in the past 12 months was correlated with the structural thickness of the mapped field.

Our brain continuously receives sensory information from our body. The somatosensory cortex is responsible for capturing and integrating them through our neurons. Each part of the body corresponds to a specific region of the somatosensory cortex, thus constituting a cerebral map of the human body. In 2005, other researchers had developed a technique causing very localized tactile stimulation of the penis, which allowed them to find the precise region devoted to this area: near that of the hip. It is now the turn of the clitoris - the female organ dedicated in particular to sexual pleasure - to be an object of study.

Until now, the precise place dedicated to the female genitalia has been controversial. Previous studies had placed it either under the representation of the foot, or near that of the hip. But stimulation techniques (by oneself or a partner) were imprecise since other parts of the body were affected at the same time, or the process triggered arousal, which blurred the results.

The new study, led by German researchers, involved stimulating the clitoris of 20 women aged 18 to 45 while their brains were observed by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). For the stimulation, a small round object was applied above the underwear at the level of the clitoris: thanks to air jets, a small membrane began to vibrate slightly. Eight stimuli of the clitoris were performed - of 10 seconds each and interspersed with 10 seconds of rest. The same device was used on the back of the right hand as a control.

The precisely activated area varies among women

The researchers specify that this study does not answer questions such as whether having a larger area devoted to genital stimulation would allow better perception of sensations. And does having a more developed sensory zone encourage more sexual intercourse, or conversely, does frequent intercourse make her grow as one works a muscle? So many questions still unanswered.

The only certainty for researchers is that the place of the clitoris in the somatosensory cortex is next to the hip (as with the penis). This corresponds to Brodmann areas 1, 2 and 3a, located along the post-central gyrus, but the precise location varies greatly between each woman tested.

Scientists then investigated whether this area exhibited different characteristics depending on sexual activity. The 20 women were asked about the frequency of their sexual intercourse over the past year, as well as since the beginning of their sex life. Then, for each of them, the researchers determined the ten points in the brain that were most activated during stimulation, and they measured the thickness of these areas.

"We found an association between the frequency of intercourse and the thickness of the individually mapped genital field," Christine Heim, co-author of the report and professor of medical psychology at Charité University Hospital in Berlin , told AFP. . Further studies may confirm the hypothesis that the more intercourse, the larger the area.

But past research gives clues. First of all, it is well established that the more we use certain parts of the brain, the more they grow: this is brain plasticity. Second, previous animal studies have shown that stimulation of the genitals of rats and mice actually causes the area of ​​the brain corresponding to the rats and mice to expand.

Towards therapy for people who have suffered sexual violence

In addition, these observations could help improve the care of women who have suffered sexual violence, by acting directly on the areas of the brain activated by the clitoris.

Heim had previously shown that people who had suffered traumatic sexual violence had thinning of the areas of the brain devoted to the genitals. “We speculated at the time that this might be the brain's response to curb the damaging perception of abuse,” she said. She now hopes that her research will lead to future therapies aimed at rehabilitating this region in abuse survivors.


Sensory-Tactile Functional Mapping and Use-Associated Structural Variation of the Human Female Genital Representation Field, Journal of Neuroscience 20 December 2021, JN-RM-1081-21; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1081-21.2021

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