Human face processing is tuned to sexual age preferences

J. Ponseti, O. Granert, T. van Eimeren, O. Jansen, S. Wolff, K. Beier, G. Deuschl, H. Bosinski, H. Siebner

Abstract

Human faces can motivate nurturing behaviour or sexual behaviour when adults see a child or an adult face, respectively. This suggests that face processing is tuned to detecting age cues of sexual maturity to stimulate the appropriate reproductive behaviour: either caretaking or mating. In paedophilia, sexual attraction is directed to sexually immature children. Therefore, we hypothesized that brain networks that normally are tuned to mature faces of the preferred gender show an abnormal tuning to sexual immature faces in paedophilia. Here, we use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to test directly for the existence of a network which is tuned to face cues of sexual maturity. During fMRI, participants sexually attracted to either adults or children were exposed to various face images. In individuals attracted to adults, adult faces activated several brain regions significantly more than child faces. These brain regions comprised areas known to be implicated in face processing, and sexual processing, including occipital areas, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and, subcortically, the putamen and nucleus caudatus. The same regions were activated in paedophiles, but with a reversed preferential response pattern.

  • Received March 4, 2014.
  • Accepted April 26, 2014.
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