The study — published online in the journal Molecular Psychiatry — doesn’t claim to totally explain the science of sexual desire, or why levels of sexual desire vary. But the researchers note that their findings deserve more exploration.
At the heart of the study are different patterns in the DRD4 gene. That gene makes a protein that serves as a receptor for dopamine, a chemical messenger produced by the brain.
The DRD4 gene has drawn attention in tests on animals, so researchers in Israel took a closer look at that gene in people. The researchers included Richard P. Ebstein, PhD. He directs the Scheinfeld Center for Human Genetics in the Social Sciences at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Gauging Sex Drive
Ebstein and colleagues studied 148 young adults who had already provided DNA samples for previous research. Participants took an anonymous online survey about their sexual attitudes and behavior.
How important is sex in your life? How frequently do you want to engage in sexual activity? How frequently do you have sexual fantasies? How frequently are you sexually stimulated/ aroused? How difficult is it for you to be stimulated/aroused sexually? How often do you have problems [with] vaginal lubrication or erection?
Ebstein’s team compared the survey’s results to variations in participants’ DRD4 gene.
The researchers found that one variation of the DRD4 gene was associated with lower levels of sexual desire, while another variation was tied to higher levels of sexual desire.
Picture the gene as a beaded bracelet. One arrangement of the “beads” was linked to lower sexual desire, while another arrangement was tied to higher levels of sexual desire.
The study doesn’t show that any participants had sexual problems. It also doesn’t prove that the DRD4 gene determined participant’s sexual desire, or that other genetic or nongenetic influences were involved.
The study also doesn’t explain why sexual desire might ebb and flow over time, or how genetic variations interact with nongenetic influences, such as the quality of an intimate relationship or other health conditions.
If genetics affect sexual desire, it might be possible to create new drug treatments for desire disorders, the researchers note.
Ebstein and colleagues also write that psychological approaches to sexual desire disorders might “benefit from the concept that individual differences have a genetic component and that both high and low levels of sexual desire may be adaptational and not in themselves a cause for guilt or treatment.”
In other words, if genetics play a role in sexual desire, knowing that might change the way people regard low or high levels of sexual desire.
The researchers stress that their findings need to be studied in a larger group of people.