Tim Bruns, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan, along with Rackham student Lauren Zimmerman, published a paper this month on their research for a therapy to help women who struggle with sexual arousal. This is the first therapy of its kind to address a solution for the physiological problems of women suffering from female sexual dysfunction.
According to the National Institutes of Health, female sexual dysfunction is a condition found worldwide.
“Female sexual dysfunction (FSD) is a prevalent problem, afflicting approximately 40% of women and there are few treatment options,” the NIH reported in 2010.
These women might have either physiological problems or lack of overall desire. Physiological problems include lack of orgasm, pain or inability to lubricate. Low desire means having a low libido, which can be the result of multiple factors. Professor Bruns calls these distinctions “neck-up” versus “neck-down” problems.
“Women’s sexual response is a lot more complicated than men’s,” Bruns said.
The female sexual stimulant drug, often referred to as Addyi, was made available in 2015 to help address women with a low libido. However, to this point, no such therapy exists for improving the sexual response of women relating to their “neck-down” problems, or problems in their genitalia.
In this published study, Bruns’s lab used the same therapy that exists to treat bladder issues on 16 rats in order to see if this would cause arousal. The process includes injecting a needle into a part of the rat’s leg, anesthetizing them and watching their blood flow. After 30 minutes, arousal was determined by an increase in their vaginal blood flow.
Bruns indicated he does not know why the study results showed this treatment causes increased stimulation for the rats. The lab intends to do the same study on awake conscious rats and get similar results.
At the same time as this work is being published, the lab is also working on a clinical study giving women subjects the same therapy the rats received. The purpose of this is to see how the therapy affects women with FSD.
Only women who scored a certain number indicating their levels of FSD on a survey were included. Participants take the survey before the trial, in the middle and at the end in order to see if their scores increase over time. The results of this study will be published later this year.
Bruns noted he received much feedback throughout the study.
“One person who had low sexual desire wrote this long story about how her husband thinks she is cheating on him and she is so glad this work is being done,” he said. “There is potential for a large impact for this which I think is really cool.”
Looking toward the future, Bruns noted he could see the therapy eventually being transformed into a type of shoe that women can wear. If anything, he would like this research to open up opportunities for people to discuss their sexual habits and functions.
“Part of my work is for people realizing that they are not alone,” Bruns said.
The prospect of this research excites campus activists. LSA junior Antonia Vrana, publicity chair for Women’s Organization on Rights to Health, a student organization committed to advocating for women’s health, commented on how this type of research can help bring women’s health issues into the conversation with in the University community.
“I think that the development of drugs like this for women’s health rights as a whole could normalize taking a more active role to embrace sexuality,” Vrana said. “As students and people from a young generation, it is really promising to hear that for the future, especially because female sexual dysfunction is not so discussed.”
Zimmerman first got involved when Bruns explained the ongoing work to her. Zimmerman was intrigued by the project because “it struck a chord within the feminist in me to work on a project that is for women.”
Zimmerman has gained a lot of experience through working firsthand with her subjects acting as a “neurosurgeon to rats” and also aiming to help the human subjects that come in with sexual dysfunction.
Throughout this work, however, Zimmerman has been met with some criticism from people who do not take her work seriously.
“Part of the stigma that I fight at conferences is that it is this frivolous sex toy and not taken seriously when it is a really big significant life factor for a lot of women,” she said.
With this new therapy, Bruns and Zimmerman are hopeful that giving women a solution for sexual dysfunction will help with both their libido and sexual performance.