Brad Crouch, Health Reporter, The Advertiser – August 19, 2019
People with spinal injuries will be put in an MRI scanner and shown adult movies to see if researchers can find pathways to “hijack” to restore sexual function in a state government-funded project.
A landmark study hopes to find how to help restore sexual function to people with spinal cord injury by hijacking alternative pathways between the brain and the sexual organs.
Project SCIN (Spinal Cord Injury Neurosexuality) involves people with spinal injuries being sexually stimulated while in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine so researchers can assess brain and spinal cord activity in the hope of finding ways to bypass the injury site.
The SA Health and Medical Research Institute study has won funding from the State Government’s Lifetime Support Authority, which provides high quality treatment, care and support for people seriously injured in motor vehicle accidents.
LSA funding will allow the international team to recruit 16 men and 16 women with spinal cord injuries over two years for the study, as well as eight uninjured men and eight women who will undergo the same tests to act as a benchmark.
Injured participants will be recruited from the SA community, and be at least two years post-injury.
Volunteers in this Australia-first study will undergo two sessions wearing audiovisual headsets showing adult movies for stimulation while in the MRI, one to check for brain activation and the other to assess spinal cord activity.
The volunteers will also be questioned by researchers to give their own take on what they were feeling, to compare it against the MRI results.
The study notes that sexual health is a high priority for men and women with spinal cord injury but the understanding of the biological basis of sexual dysfunction in this situation is still preliminary and there is no general agreement on treatment guidelines or an evidence-based treatment plan.
Project SCIN aims to unlock the biology of sexual response. It is being led by local co-chief investigators Dr. Ryan O’Hare Doig and A/Professor Jillian Clark, and leading international experts Professor Marcalee Sipski Alexander, A/Professor Ruth Marshall and Professor Patrick Stroman.
Dr Doig of the Neil Sachse Centre for Spinal Cord Research at SAHMRI noted a major concern for people with spinal cord injury is changes to their sexual function and health.
However, our lack of understanding of these pathways limits our treatment capacity.
He said it had always been thought that sexual stimulation travels exclusively through the brain and spinal cord.
“Imagine hypothetically that the spinal cord is cut in a way which completely disconnects it from the brain. It follows that no sexual stimulation signals should be able to bypass that point,” he said.
“But despite that disconnection, people can still get brain activation and perceive sexual arousal, so obviously there are undiscovered communication routes between the brain and the sexual organs – it could be remapping or chemical reshaping in these alternative signalling pathways that we can hijack.”
Dr. Doig said that two people can have the exact same injury but one may have full sexual function and remain sexually active, while the other does not.
“These are the people who we must try to help. Discovering alternative pathways that allow arousal and improve sexual health will lead to improved quality of life, not only of the individual but of their partners, also.”
Using functional MRI techniques, the measurement of the different responses of people with comparable spinal cord injuries could indicate where there has been a reshaping or remapping of pathways to allow arousal.
These findings will have a major impact on developing new rehabilitation strategies for improved sexual health and function after spinal cord injury.
LSA chief executive Tamara Tomic said people who have sustained a spinal cord injury often rate sexual health as one of their highest ongoing priorities.
“Currently, there’s limited understanding about the biological basis of sexual issues so it’s difficult to address,” she said.
“The LSA has contributed $192,000 to SAHMRI’s study, with the objective of improving assessment and possible treatments for people living with a spinal cord injury to maximise their sexual health and wellbeing.”