Brain Scans Provide Clues For the Development of Pedophilia

Summary: A new study reveals pedophilic men have increased activity in the left anterior insular cortex when viewing images of young animals.

Source: Kiel University.

Why some adults develop a sexual interest in children is scientifically not yet fully understood. A research team from the Institute of Sexual Medicine and Forensic Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at Kiel University and the University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH) Campus Kiel, together with scientists from other north German universities, has now found new clues as to possible causes of pedophilia in men. In a study funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the scientists were the first to identify a fault in the so-called nurturing system in the brain as a possible explanation. Their findings have been published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

In the search for explanations for pedophilic disorders, numerous previous studies primarily focused on the mating system, i.e. the reactions of the brain to sexual stimuli, the associated mechanisms of impulse control, and possible brain anatomical aberrances. The Kiel research team, however, focused on brain functions which control so-called nurturing behaviour. Men are different to most male mammals, in that they are able to carry out an unusually high degree of nurturing activities, meaning that they possess a wide range of social skills with which they can take care of their offspring. In mammals – including humans – this behaviour is associated with a specific hormonal regulation.

Based on their previous work, the research team at Kiel University suspected a possible over-activity of the nurturing system in male pedophiles. β€œIn our study, we initially investigated mechanisms in the brains of those affected, which are unrelated to sexuality. The causes of pedophilia are more complex than previously assumed, and may possibly also be related to a sexualisation of nurturing,” emphasised psychologist Dr Jorge Ponseti, head of the Kiel study.

The scientists investigated brain responses of pedophilic men to pictures of young and adult animals by means of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). As such, they used a method that functions independently of sexual stimuli, where the cuteness of the young animals depicted causes activation of the nurturing system.

cat and brain scan
Looking at young animals compared to adult animals triggers increased activity in different areas of the brain in male pedophiles (yellow areas), whereas the activity is comparatively weaker in control subjects. The yellow arrow points to the relative activity in the left anterior insula cortex. This area of the brain is usually activated when mothers look at their own child. image is credited to Dr Jorge Ponseti.

It was found that the subjective perception of these pictures by pedophilic men was not different to that of a healthy control group. However, the MRI scans showed that the brain activity of those affected increased significantly when looking at the young animals. Increased activity was found in specific areas of the brain, such as the left anterior insula cortex, which is usually activated when mothers look at their own child, for example. The Kiel researchers concluded that pedophilia could also be related to a malfunction of the male nurturing system. The scientists now want to check these newly-discovered correlations in subsequent studies.

One approach that they want to pursue relates to the concentration of certain hormones in females, which decreases at the beginning of the menopause. This causes a change in the nurturing system of women, and, for example, reduces their reaction to cuteness. The research team plans to test whether medical hormone regulation has a similar effect in affected males. “This therapeutic approach would provide the opportunity to treat pedophile tendencies in a much more targeted manner than is possible today,” said an optimistic Ponseti.

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Jorge Ponseti – Kiel University
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is credited to Dr Jorge Ponseti.
Original Research: Open access research in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]Kiel University “Brain Scans Provide Clues For the Development of Pedophilia.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 23 February 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]Kiel University (2018, February 23). Brain Scans Provide Clues For the Development of Pedophilia. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved February 23, 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]Kiel University “Brain Scans Provide Clues For the Development of Pedophilia.” (accessed February 23, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Decoding Pedophilia: Increased Anterior Insula Response to Infant Animal Pictures

Previous research found increased brain responses of men with sexual interest in children (i.e., pedophiles) not only to pictures of naked children but also to pictures of child faces. This opens the possibly that pedophilia is linked (in addition to or instead of an aberrant sexual system) to an over-active nurturing system. To test this hypothesis we exposed pedophiles and healthy controls to pictures of infant and adult animals during functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain. By using pictures of infant animals (instead of human infants), we aimed to elicit nurturing processing without triggering sexual processing. We hypothesized that elevated brain responses to nurturing stimuli will be found – in addition to other brain areas – in the anterior insula of pedophiles because this area was repeatedly found to be activated when adults see pictures of babies. Behavioral ratings confirmed that pictures of infant or adult animals were not perceived as sexually arousing neither by the pedophilic participants nor by the heathy controls. Statistical analysis was applied to the whole brain as well as to the anterior insula as region of interest. Only in pedophiles did infants relative to adult animals increase brain activity in the anterior insula, supplementary motor cortex, and dorsolateral prefrontal areas. Within-group analysis revealed an increased brain response to infant animals in the left anterior insular cortex of the pedophilic participants. Currently, pedophilia is considered the consequence of disturbed sexual or executive brain processing, but details are far from known. The present findings raise the question whether there is also an over-responsive nurturing system in pedophilia.

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