Scientists have discovered that increasing dopamine levels can restore sexual responses in aging fruit flies, which potentially opens a door to developing a therapy for low sexual desire in humans.
A team led by National Chi Nan University chemistry professor Fu Tsai-feng (傅在峰) found that boosting dopamine levels in a particular group of brain nerve cells called PPL2ab neurons could revive the libido of elderly fruit flies.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays an active role in the brain’s reward and motivation system, and it has been proved to be related to feelings of love, sexual desire and addiction, but dopamine levels wane naturally with age due to neural degeneration and lower cell activity, which is a phenomenon observed across different species, Fu said.
The team boosted the dopamine levels in 40-day-old flies — roughly comparable to 40-year-old humans — to elicit response of the PPL2ab neurons and observed increased sexual activity. Male flies spent more time wooing females and performing elaborate courting rituals involving tapping, licking and wing vibrations, while mating time also lengthened.
When dopamine levels were decreased in 10-day-old flies, which are more sexually active than 40-day-old flies, despite them being equally able and vigorous in other respects, they showed less frequent sexual activity and shorter mating times, Fu said.
“This is the first discovery of the existence of a correlation between dopamine levels and sexual activity in male animals, and it is also the first discovery that manipulation of a particular neuron can restore the sexual drive of aging male animals,” he said.
Meanwhile, dopamine-aroused sexual response was also observed in female flies, as ongoing research by the team has found aging female flies given a dopamine boost become more receptive and quicker to accept male courtship, he said.
The fruit fly was selected because the insect has only a little more than 200 dopamine-producing nerve cells — compared with thousands in a human brain — providing scientists with excellent test material to locate a single neural network responsible for sexual response.
“I believe there is also a single neural network in the human brain that regulates sexual activity, and our long-term goal is to identify that network in vertebrates and humans to develop a therapy to restore or limit sexual desire,” Fu said, adding that the team has targeted several candidate genes in vertebrates that might be associated with sexual response mechanisms.
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