Brain Imaging and Behavior

, Volume 12, Issue 1, pp 109–126 | Cite as

Sex attracts - neural correlates of sexual preference under cognitive demand

  • Kirsten JordanEmail author
  • Katrin Wieser
  • Isabel Methfessel
  • Peter Fromberger
  • Peter Dechent
  • Jürgen L. Müller
Original Research


Neurofunctional correlates of sexual arousal are of interest in basic research as well as in clinical science. In forensic psychiatry, it is important to use designs which are potentially robust against susceptibility to manipulation or deception. We tested a new design to measure neurofunctional correlates of sexual preference. Twenty-two healthy heterosexual men had to solve a mental rotation task while sexually preferred or non-preferred distractors were presented simultaneously. With this challenging active task, subjects’ possibility to manipulate their response to the sexual stimuli should be lower than in easier tasks and in passive designs. Participants needed more time to solve the mental rotation task when distractors of women and girls were presented compared to distractors of men and boys. FMRI-results showed a network of three brain regions which specifically responded to sexually preferred distractors. Female and adult distractors evoked stronger responses than male and child distractors in regions comprising parahippocampal/fusiform gyrus and amygdala/basal ganglia/thalamus, respectively. Women distractors elicited stronger responses in the inferior parietal lobe compared to all other distractors. Specifically, sexually preferred distractors elicited a weaker downregulation than other distractors. We suppose a different emotion regulation with respect to the sexual relevance of the distractors. To our knowledge, this study is the first to show neurofunctional correlates of sexual preference under cognitive demand. Further studies should examine whether this design is more robust against susceptibility to manipulation than others, in order to be applied as a measurement of sexual preference in forensic patients.


Sexual preference Sexual interest Attention allocation Distractor Cognitive load Mental rotation Emotion regulation Forensic psychiatry 



We thank Ilona Pfahlert for her excellent technical assistance and Martina Wernicke for her valuable comments and suggestions. Special thanks go to Mona Klöckner for careful linguistic reading.

Compliance with ethical standards

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. The study was approved by the ethics committee of the medical faculty of Georg-August-University of Göttingen. All subjects provided written informed consent before participating in the experiment.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department for Forensic Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Clinic of Psychiatry and PsychotherapyUniversity Medical Center, Georg-August-University GöttingenGöttingenGermany
  2. 2.Department of Cognitive NeurologyUniversity Medical Center, Georg-August-University GöttingenGöttingenGermany

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