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Don’t Call Female Desire Drugs ‘Lady Viagra’

Other than their intended purpose—encouraging sexual activity—female desire drugs and Viagra are completely different things

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Aside from both being drugs to encourage sexual activity, female desire drugs have very little in common with drugs like Viagra. Photo: baerchen57

A new wave of female sexual desire drugs may soon be on its way to market. Still entrenched in the rigors of the FDA’s approval process, two drugs, Lybrido and Lybridos, should be available by 2016 if they pass their tests. But talking reasonably about these drugs—their risks and benefits and what societal shifts, if any, could stem from them—means thinking about them in the right way.

The pharmaceutical industry has long sought an equivalent of Viagra for women, says Daniel Bergner in the New York Times Magazine, in an in-depth story on the clinical side of female desire. And, most of the time, says Bergner, ““Female Viagra” is the way drugs like Lybrido and Lybridos tend to be discussed.” But that’s not the right way to think about these drugs, he says:

Viagra meddles with the arteries; it causes physical shifts that allow the penis to rise. A female-desire drug would be something else. It would adjust the primal and executive regions of the brain. It would reach into the psyche.

Where Viagra directly creates an erection, female desire drugs are trying to directly modify the balance of hormones affecting a woman’s brain. While Lybrido and Lybridos contain a drug similar to Viagra, one meant to increase blood flow to the genitals, they also attempt to instill lust and desire by modifying two chemicals, serotonin and dopamine. While many chemicals and hormones have a role in feelings of lust, the balance of serotonin and dopamine is one of the most important factors. For many woman (and men) in long-term relationships, the urges of earlier days can wane. Changing the balance of these two chemicals in the brain can drive a sense of desire.

Rising from the ovaries and from the adrenal glands that sit atop the kidneys, testosterone rides the bloodstream to the brain and, by means not fully known, stokes the production and release of dopamine. (Blood-borne estrogen, which derives from testosterone, may also be involved in this process.) And then there’s serotonin, dopamine’s foil. It allows the advanced regions of the brain, the domains that lie high and forward, to exert what is termed executive function. Serotonin is a molecule of self-control. It instills calm, stability, coherence… Roughly speaking, dopamine is impulse; serotonin is inhibition and organization. And in sexuality, as in other emotional realms, the two have to work in balance. If dopamine is far too dominant, craving can splinter into attentional chaos. If serotonin overwhelms, the rational can displace the randy.

Other than their intended purpose—encouraging sexual activity—female desire drugs and Viagra are completely different things. Calling a female desire drug “lady Viagra” draws parallels between the two types of drugs that really aren’t there. One encourages blood flow; the other affects hormone levels in the brain. As the drugs make their way to market, it’s important that each should be thought of on its own terms—both to help people understand the relatively risks and to manage expectations.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Could Spider Venom Be a Viagra Stand-In?
Drugs’ Odd Side Effects

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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