Neural Mechanisms of Young Adult Sexual Decision-Making and Risk Behavior
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Sexual risk behavior among young adults is a serious public health concern; 50% will contract a sexually transmitted infection (STI) before the age of 25. The current study collected self-report personality and sexual history data, as well as neuroimaging, experimental behavioral (e.g., real-time hypothetical sexual decision making data), and self-report sexual arousal data from 120 heterosexual young adults ages 18-26. In addition, longitudinal changes in self-reported sexual behavior were collected from a subset (n = 70) of the participants. The primary aims of the study were (1) to predict differences in self-report sexual behavior and hypothetical sexual decision-making (in response to sexually explicit audio-visual cues) as a function of ventral striatum (VS) and amygdala activity, (2) test whether the association between sexual behavior/decision-making and brain function is moderated by gender, self-reported sexual arousal, and/or trait-level personality factors (i.e., self-control, impulsivity, and sensation seeking) and (3) to examine how the main effects of neural function and interaction effects predict sexual risk behavior over time. Our hypotheses were mostly supported across the sexual behavior and decision-making outcome variables, such that neural risk phenotypes (heightened reward-related ventral striatum activity coupled with decreased threat-related amygdala activity) were associated with greater lifetime sexual partners at baseline measured and over time (longitudinal analyses). Impulsivity moderated the relationship between neural function and self-reported number of sexual partners at baseline and follow up measures, as well as experimental condom use decision-making. Sexual arousal and sensation seeking moderated the relationship between neural function and baseline and follow up self-reports of number of sexual partners. Finally, unique gender differences were observed in the relationship between threat and reward-related neural reactivity and self-reported sexual risk behavior. The results of this study provide initial evidence for the potential role for neurobiological approaches to understanding sexual decision-making and risk behavior. With continued research, establishing biomarkers for sexual risk behavior could help inform the development of novel and more effective individually tailored sexual health prevention and intervention efforts.
DepartmentPsychology and Neuroscience
sexual decision making
sexual risk behavior
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