This kind of organic brain response is both bad news and good news: The bad news – especially for now – is that pedophilia might be hardwired in the brain. The good news – probably for the future – is that if science can decipher the workings of this organic machinery, then it might lead to ways to fix it.*
The brain circuits that respond to faces and sex appear to activate abnormally in pedophiles when they look at children’s faces, scientists say.
These new findings could lead to novel ways to diagnose pedophiles, and could shed light on the evolutionary roots of sex, the researchers added.
In the animal kingdom, there may be a number of mechanisms preventing adults from attempting sex with children. For example, “pheromones emitted by child mice inhibit sexual behavior of adult male mice,” said lead study author Jorge Ponseti, a sex researcher at Christian-Albrechts University of Kiel in Germany. “If scientists inhibited these pheromones in the child mice, adult male mice started to mate with these babies.”
Roots of a pedophile
To learn more about the roots of abnormal attraction to children in humans, the researchers scanned the brains of 56 men — 11 heterosexual pedophiles, 13 homosexual pedophiles, 18 nonpedophile heterosexuals and 14 nonpedophile homosexuals — using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). [The Sex Quiz: Myths, Taboos and Bizarre Facts]
The institute where Ponseti and his colleagues work offers pedophilic men free and totally anonymous psychiatric treatment. “We asked some of these men if they were willing to participate in our study,” Ponseti said. “Others came to us because a judge told them to do psychotherapy.”
As the researchers scanned the brains of the volunteers, they briefly flashed pictures of men’s, women’s, boys’ and girls’ faces at the volunteers in random order. The researchers asked the men to rate the attractiveness of each face after the brain scans.
In the men who were attracted to adults, images of adult faces activated a number of brain regions significantly more than child faces did. These areas of the brain, such as occipital areas, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, the putamen and nucleus caudatus, are known to help people respond to both faces and sexual behavior. These same regions were significantly more active in pedophiles when they were shown child faces than when they were shown adult faces.
These findings could help lead to a reliable test for pedophilia based on brain responses to child faces, Ponseti said.
*There are those who argue that pedophilia is an acceptable and healthy sexual identity that doesn’t need to be “fixed.” I am not one of them.