For two decades, scientists have known the biochemical factors that trigger penile erection, but not what's needed to maintain one. Now an article by Johns Hopkins researchers, scheduled to be published this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), uncovers the biochemical chain of events involved in that process. The information, they say, may lead to new therapies to help men who have erectile dysfunction.
"We've closed a gap in our knowledge," says Arthur Burnett, M.D., professor of urology at Johns Hopkins Medicine and the senior author of the study article. "We knew that the release of the chemical nitric oxide, a neurotransmitter that is produced in nerve tissue, triggers an erection by relaxing muscles that allow blood to fill the penis. We thought that was just the initial stimulus. In our research, we wanted to understand what happens next to enable that erection to be maintained."
In a study of mice, Burnett and his colleagues found a complex positive feedback loop in the penile nerves that triggers waves of nitric oxide to keep the penis erect. He says they now understand that the nerve impulses that originate from the brain and from physical stimulation are sustained by a cascade of chemicals that are generated during the erection following the initial release of nitric oxide. "The basic biology of erections at the rodent level is the same as in humans," he says.
The key finding is that after the initial release of nitric oxide, a biochemical process called phosphorylation takes place to continue its release and sustain the erection.
In a landmark study published in the journal Science in 1992, Burnett and his Johns Hopkins co-author, Solomon S. Snyder, M.D., professor of neuroscience (who is also an author on the current study), showed for the first time that nitric oxide is produced in penile tissue. Their study demonstrated the key role of nitric oxide as a neurotransmitter responsible for triggering erections.
"Now, 20 years later, we know that nitric oxide is not just a blip here or there, but instead it initiates a cyclic system that continues to produce waves of the neurotransmitter from the penile nerves," says Burnett.
With this basic biological information, it may be possible, according to Burnett, to develop new medical approaches to help men with erection problems caused by such factors as diabetes, vascular disease or nerve damage from surgical procedures. Such new approaches could be used to intervene earlier in the arousal process than current medicines approved to treat erectile dysfunction.
In particular, Burnett says, "The target for new therapies would be the protein kinase A (PKA) phosphorylation of neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS). Now that we know the mechanism for causing the 'activated' form of nNOS in penile nerves, we can develop agents that exploit this mechanism to help with erection difficulties."
One of the agents studied by the researchers was forskolin, an herbal compound that has been used to relax muscle and widen heart vessels. They found that forskolin also ramps up nerves and can help keep nitric oxide flowing to maintain an erection.
"It has been a 20-year journey to complete our understanding of this process," says Snyder. "Now it may be possible to develop therapies to enhance or facilitate the process."
Johns Hopkins Medicine: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org
This press release was posted to serve as a topic for discussion. Please comment below. We try our best to only post press releases that are associated with peer reviewed scientific literature. Critical discussions of the research are appreciated. If you need help finding a link to the original article, please contact us on twitter or via e-mail.
Pair of physicists bust a 350-year-old conundrum in a report that proposes a transfer of energy through a sound pulse causes clocks to synchronise
Scientists come up with an improved method for building tiny 3D structures out of strands of DNA.
It could be 2030 before the reactor being built in France starts making more energy than it uses. Meanwhile, China is investing heavily in its own project
A new study unpicks how the skin of the Texas horned lizard funnels water towards its mouth, and unveils a plastic replica that uses the same principles.
The weirdness of quantum teleportation offers a solution for getting information out of a black hole, should you have dropped something in there
A quiet village in eastern France is home to an unusual greenhouse.
Why I built Britain’s first elliptical pool table, for the game of LOOP, which will have its inaugural championship at the Port Eliot Festival later this month.
The international system of measurement has a weight problem—and a crystal ball could provide the solution.
Scientists have long wondered what's in the wispy cloud of gas floating in the space between the stars, absorbing starlight. Turns out it's a form of carbon named after architect Buckminster Fuller.
This week's episode of Generation Anthropocene goes on a deep dive into some of the planet's more mysterious water sources