Reproductive behavior is mandatory for conservation of species and mediated by a state of sexual arousal (SA), involving both complex mental processes and bodily reactions. An early neurobehavioral model of SA proposes cognitive, emotional, motivational, and autonomic components. In a comprehensive quantitative meta-analysis on previous neuroimaging findings, we provide here evidence for distinct brain networks underlying psychosexual and physiosexual arousal. Psychosexual (i.e., mental sexual) arousal recruits brain areas crucial for cognitive evaluation, top-down modulation of attention and exteroceptive sensory processing, relevance detection and affective evaluation, as well as regions implicated in the representation of urges and in triggering autonomic processes. In contrast, physiosexual (i.e., physiological sexual) arousal is mediated by regions responsible for regulation and monitoring of initiated autonomic processes and emotions and for somatosensory processing. These circuits are interconnected by subcortical structures (putamen and claustrum) that provide exchange of sensorimotor information and crossmodal processing between and within the networks. Brain deactivations may imply attenuation of introspective processes and social cognition, but be necessary to release intrinsic inhibition of SA.
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