New research could lead to breakthroughs in treating men who suffer from low or overactive sex drive.
CHICAGO — A new discovery is opening the door to treating sexual dysfunction in men. Doctors from Northwestern University’s School of Medicine say a specific gene in the brain regulates sexual desire, making it possible for scientists to increase or decrease these impulses.
Researchers say the key is a gene called aromatase. In a certain area of the brain, this gene converts testosterone to estrogen and helps the male sex drive. Until now, scientists weren’t sure how big of a role aromatase played in this process.
“This is the first key finding to explain how testosterone stimulates sexual desire,” senior author Dr. Serdar Bulun says in a media release. “For the first time, we demonstrated conclusively that the conversion of testosterone to estrogen in the brain is critical to maintain full sexual activity or desire in males. Aromatase drives that.”
How aromatase controls sexual desire
The study examines how mice react when scientists artificially block the function of aromatase. The results show male mice see a 50-percent decrease in sexual activity, even though their testosterone levels are higher than normal mice. While some may associate estrogen with females, study authors explain it plays a vital role in the male body too.
“Male mice partially lost interest in sex,” says Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine’s Dr. Hong Zhao. “Aromatase is the key enzyme for estrogen production. Estrogen has functions in males and females. Testosterone has to be converted to estrogen to drive sexual desire in males.”
Normally, male lab mice will follow female mice around and try to mate when placed in the same cage. The new study finds male behavior is noticeably different when inhibiting this gene.
“If you knock out the aromatase gene in the brain, their sexual activity is significantly reduced. There is less frequency of mating. The male mice are not that interested,” Bulun says.
What does this mean for men with sexual dysfunction?
The Northwestern team says a low sex drive, known as hypoactive sexual desire disorder, is a common problem among men using certain antidepressants known as SSRIs. Bulun believes boosting aromatase can restore the testosterone-estrogen conversion.
For men experiencing compulsive sexual desire on the other hand, dampening this gene just like the mice may be the answer. The study cautions however, existing drugs which inhibit aromatase can cause osteoporosis, a condition causing the bones to become brittle and weak. Using this new research, Bulun says specific drugs which only target the brain area where aromatase works can avoid these side-effects.
The study appears in the journal Endocrinology.