Modeling Human Sexual Motivation in Rodents: Some Caveats

Sexual behavior is activated by motivation. An overwhelming majority of experimental studies of the intricacies of sexual motivation has been performed in rodents, most of them in rats. Sometimes it is desirable to generalize results obtained in this species to other species, particularly the human. It is hoped that studies of the neurobiology of rodent sexual behavior may shed light on the central nervous mechanisms operating in the human, and the search for efficient pharmacological treatments of human sexual dysfunctions relies partly on studies performed in rodents. Then the issue of generalizability of the rodent data to the human becomes crucial. We emphasize the importance of distinguishing between copulatory acts, behavior involving the genitals, and the preceding event, the establishment of physical contact with a potential mate. Comparisons between the structure of copulatory behavior in rats and humans show abysmal differences, but there may be some similarity in the underlying mechanisms. The endocrine control of sex behavior is shortly mentioned, and we also compare the effects of the few drugs known to affect both rodent and human copulatory behavior. The stimuli activating sexual motivation, often called desire in the human literature, are examined, and the sexual approach behaviors in rats and humans are compared. There is a striking similarity between these species in how these behaviors respond to drugs. It is then shown that the intensity of sexual approach is unrelated to the intensity of copulatory behavior. Even though the approach is a requisite for copulation, an activity that requires at least two individuals in close physical contact, these two aspects of sexuality do not covary. This is similar to the role of the testosterone in men and male rats: although the hormone is needed for sex behavior, there is no correlation between serum testosterone concentration and the intensity of copulation. It is also pointed out that human sexual behavior is mostly determined by social conventions, whereas this is not the case in rats and other rodents. It is concluded that some observations in rats can be generalized to the human, but extreme caution must be exercised.


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