Big Pharma has made billions pumping up the male population. Now neuroscientists are reverse engineering the female orgasm.

I’m in Newark, New Jersey, in a small room dominated by a large conference table. There are no windows, and no sounds except for the whir of the ventilation system. “This is going to be great,” says my host, Rutgers neuropsychologist Barry Komisaruk, grinning.

A woman walks in with a large black duffel bag and shuts the door. “This is my graduate student Janice Breen,” Komisaruk says. Breen opens the bag, unpacks a few electromechanical components, and begins to assemble them using a screwdriver.

“So what do you call this?” I ask. The device looks like a tampon attached to a hefty electric toothbrush, which is in turn wired to a box with a glowing red digital readout.

“It’s the, um, contraption,” Breen answers distractedly, hunting for an outlet.

“Actually, it’s called the calibrated vaginal stimulator,” Komisaruk tells me. “It’s a modified tampon attached to a transducer for measuring the force that women apply to the vaginal wall.”

The tampon looks big enough to be in the supersize range and is connected at a 45-degree angle to the metal handle, which houses the transducer. Scores of women have inserted Breen’s contraption into their vaginas (the tampons are disposed of after each use). As I fiddle with the tampon, the pressure from my fingers registers as a few grams of force.

“Women self-stimulate,” Komisaruk explains, “and we use fMRIs to look at which parts of their brains respond.”

I stare at the instrument in my hands.

“Basically,” Komisaruk concludes, “it’s a dildo.”

The tools are crude, but that’s because the science of sexual arousal is still young. Viagra revolutionized the field in the 1990s. The little blue pill that gets blood flowing to the right places at that special moment became a blockbuster for Pfizer, spawning Eli Lilly’s Cialis and GlaxoSmithKline’s Levitra. Millions now take these drugs to kick-start an evening of private recreation.

Flush with success in the fight against “erectile dysfunction,” the pharmaceutical industry set out to develop Viagra for women. First, researchers simply gave women the same pill that worked so well for men. The good news: The drug does pump a woman’s genitals full of blood. But it won’t necessarily get her frisky.

The results were surprising and frustrating to the pharmaceutical industry, which had assumed that what was good for the gander would be good for the goose. Julia Heiman, a psychology professor and director of the Kinsey Institute, conducted some of Pfizer’s Viagra studies and found that while some women “really noticed their genitals” and felt aroused, others “barely paid attention” to them and weren’t aroused at all. In other words, signals originating from these women’s genitals just weren’t translating into conscious desires. That insight put a new target in researchers’ sights: the female brain itself. “The brain is where things are made sexual,” Heiman explains. “It’s the organ that causes us to be attracted to certain body types or looks. That kind of preference isn’t processed in the genitals.”

Even before Pfizer abandoned the bottom-up approach in 2004, the industry began investigating top-down options. The reigning wisdom these days is that making arousal drugs for women will involve targeting the female brain the way Viagra targets the male vascular system.

The first arousal drugs aimed at women’s gray matter are expected to be on the market in the next couple of years. The active ingredient: testosterone, a “male” hormone that is also naturally present in women’s bodies in smaller quantities. Procter & Gamble plans to release a testosterone patch, Intrinsa, and Illinois-based BioSante is entering Phase III clinical trials with its testosterone formulation, LibiGel. Even so, most researchers agree that testosterone isn’t the end of the story. Testosterone drugs will never have a direct, rapid effect on women the way Viagra does on men, because it’s a hormone that fosters an overall sense of strength and well-being rather than specifically catalyzing sexual arousal. More promising is a drug called PT-141, which is being developed by Palatin Technologies in New Jersey. The first in a new class of drugs called melanocortin agonists, PT-141 targets the central nervous system. Early trials show both genital arousal and increased sexual desire in women who take it. But even more precisely targeted drugs are coming – those that won’t light up the entire nervous system in the blind hope of hitting pleasure buttons, but actually home in on parts of the brain that are directly connected to arousal and orgasm.

The total market for male arousal drugs is $2.7 billion per year and rising. With a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association estimating that 43 percent of women are dissatisfied with sex – as opposed to 31 percent of men – a market for a pink Viagra could be even bigger. For now, those future billions are locked up in the labs where scientists are attempting to reverse engineer the female orgasm.

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