Open Access Research article

Immediate processing of erotic stimuli in paedophilia and controls: a case control study

Benedikt Habermeyer12*, Fabrizio Esposito3, Nadja Händel2, Patrick Lemoine2, Markus Klarhöfer4, Ralph Mager1, Volker Dittmann2, Erich Seifritz5 and Marc Graf2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of General and Social Psychiatry, Psychiatric University Hospital, Zürich, Switzerland

2 Department of Forensic Psychiatry, University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland

3 Department of Medicine and Surgery, University of Salerno, Baronissi, (SA), Italy

4 Department of Medical Radiology, MR-Physics, University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland

5 Clinic for Affective Disorders and General Psychiatry, Psychiatric University Hospital, Zurich, Switzerland

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BMC Psychiatry 2013, 13:88  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-13-88

Published: 19 March 2013



Most neuroimaging studies investigating sexual arousal in paedophilia used erotic pictures together with a blocked fMRI design and long stimulus presentation time. While this approach allows the detection of sexual arousal, it does not enable the assessment of the immediate processing of erotically salient stimuli. Our study aimed to identify neuronal networks related to the immediate processing of erotic stimuli in heterosexual male paedophiles and healthy age-matched controls.


We presented erotic pictures of prepubescent children and adults in an event related fMRI-design to eight paedophilic subjects and age-matched controls.


Erotic pictures of females elicited more activation in the right temporal lobe, the right parietal lobe and both occipital lobes and erotic pictures of children activated the right dorsomedial prefrontal cortex in both groups. An interaction of sex, age and group was present in the right anteriolateral oribitofrontal cortex.


Our event related study design confirmed that erotic pictures activate some of the brain regions already known to be involved in the processing of erotic pictures when these are presented in blocks. In addition, it revealed that erotic pictures of prepubescent children activate brain regions critical for choosing response strategies in both groups, and that erotically salient stimuli selectively activate a brain region in paedophilic subjects that had previously been attributed to reward and punishment, and that had been shown to be implicated in the suppression of erotic response and deception.

Paedophilia; Event related fMRI; Erotic stimulation