Hypersexuality and Huntington’s Disease
By Sharon McClellan Thomason
Of the troubling behavioral changes that occur with the onset of Huntington’s disease (HD) and Juvenile Huntington’s disease (JHD), and there are many, one of the most troublesome can be hypersexuality. It’s important to realize that this is a part of the disease, that there is no shame or embarrassment in talking about it, and that there are treatments that can help resolve the problem.
According to an article in Huntington’s Disease News, “Studies have found that up to 75 percent of women and 85 percent of men with Huntington’s report difficulties in their sexual relations.” (https://huntingtonsdiseasenews.com/sexual-problems-huntingtons-disease/)
While a loss of interest in sexual relations is openly discussed in the literature, hypersexuality and inappropriate sexual behavior are not frequently talked about. In fact, when they are discussed, they are downplayed as something that doesn’t occur very often. The same article in Huntington’s Disease News says,
Less frequently, Huntington’s disease may also cause an increased sex drive and inappropriate sexual behavior. Such disinhibition is thought to be due to damage to the caudate nucleus, a deep area of the brain that controls behavior.
Some patients may be more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, such as one-night stands or sex under the influence of alcohol or illicit substances. It is important to always ensure that safe sexual practices are upheld, including using condoms and taking oral contraceptive pills to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and unexpected pregnancies.
Families will tell you, though, that an increased sex drive and inappropriate sexual behavior are NOT rare; it’s just rarely discussed openly, perhaps because of embarrassment.
In fact, the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences reports, “Psychiatric syndromes (present in up to 79% of patients) most commonly include impulse control disorders, depression, personality changes, and, more rarely, psychosis or mania. Symptoms include disinhibition, irritability, aggression, apathy, and neurovegetative markers of depression. The suicide rate has been reported to be up to 20 times that of the general population over age 50.1 Increased criminal behavior and hypersexuality have often been reported in HD patients.” (https://neuro.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/jnp.11.2.173)
Recently, one woman posted in a Facebook caregivers’ group, “I’ve (yet again) been approached by a Facebook friend, and my brother has been harassing women. Young, old, married, or single. He begs for dates and tells them all the same lines about how attractive they are. So far, all I know it that he compliments them ‘sexy or beautiful’ and how he dreams about them. I would be uncomfortable if a man sent these messages to me. He has been doing his for years, and it is getting more frequent. Can I report him to Facebook? He won’t listen to me. I’ve begged, yelled, and threatened, to no avail. Maybe therapy? He’s so lonely. But he’s losing the few contacts that he still has!”
Several people responded with empathy. One said, “Dealing with the same issue with my son. Like many others dealing with this disease, the impulsive behavior is out of control. I have been dealing with this for years. Sometimes it is worse than others. We deal with it as we go. I will send messages and explain the circumstances, and most people understand. As the disease progresses, there will be different things you have to deal with. This is just a stage. Look at it as unfortunately at some point they will not be able to do it at all … deal as it comes is my outlook. It’s temporary, unfortunately.”
Another commented, “I reported my ex (we have two daughters). It’s sad, but I did not want them to see it.”
One woman wrote about the potential consequences. “My son has definitely changed. His mind has taken him to all kinds of stuff … porn from women, men, transvestites, gay, anything he can watch …. very scary to think what’s going on in his mind. However, I have to remember he’s 24, trapped in a body that is not functioning properly. He is not living a normal life, and that is his outlet, I would assume–so it’s definitely a fine line. He’s usually good about keeping within his bedroom and closing the door, so I don’t bother him too much unless he starts texting and sending inappropriate pictures to people. I explain to him that some people will not understand or do not care; it’s inappropriate, and you will go to jail, and at that point, I will not be able to help you … with Huntington’s and especially Juvenile Huntington’s it doesn’t matter how many times you say it; it’s in and out of the brain. It’s a constant battle [because] they cannot manage thoughts like they used to.”
Another woman shared, “My husband is starting to be the same way. He sends messages to my friends all the time, even if he hasn’t met them. He has no concept of it being awkward and weird. He even got blocked too many times on a dating app.”
I went through similar problems with my ex, back before we had Internet and dating sites. He once picked up a strange woman and brought her to our home, even gave her some of my clothes, and sent our young four-year-old son off in her care, not knowing her last name or how to contact her. Another time, he went to my son’s first grade Christmas party and gave the teacher a very sexy piece of lingerie, which she opened in front of students and parents, something that was incredibly embarrassing for her and for the parents and the students who realized something inappropriate was happening.
The problem with hypersexuality and inappropriate sexual behavior does not occur only with males affected by HD. One man shared, “I have been having a similar issue with my wife. She claims that she has no sex drive due to all the medications that she is on for her mood, and her doctors verify her claims of reduced libido. Yet she keeps reaching out to her ex-boyfriend from almost 20 years ago, trying to hook up with him. She claims it was a one-time thing and apologized, yet I have caught her calling him or messaging him many times now. I even checked the GPS history on her phone and found out that she left the house one night after I fell asleep. Sure enough, when I checked the call history on that day, her ex called her, and within minutes, she left the house and went to a local park for about an hour. When confronted with all this, she confessed to meeting him, yet she SWEARS that they just met up to ‘talk,’ yet according to the phone records they talk on the phone all the time (even though she keeps telling me that she doesn’t really talk to him anymore). I just don’t understand how if she supposedly has no sex drive, then why does she keep trying to hook up with this guy?? I finally called his wife and told her what was going on. Now I have seen messages between her and another guy (her friend’s 27-year-old son) that were VERY sexually explicit. This caused a huge argument and nearly ended our marriage.”
The problem, when it’s a woman sending sexually explicit messages and invitations, seems to be quite different than when it’s a man doing the same thing. The same poster added, “If a man with HD sends a woman a sexually explicit message, or flat out asks for sex, 99% of women would be very offended and even get angry. But if a woman offers a man sex or a ‘sexual favor,’ a LOT of men will actually entertain it to see if she is serious and possibly even take her up on it. I have heard of MANY female HD patients being taken advantage of by men because they are hypersexual and being VERY flirty with men.”
In another caregivers’ group, someone shared how his wife enjoyed masturbation with a vibrator so much that when the batteries ran out, she went to the neighbors’ house, naked, and threatened to set their house on fire if they didn’t give her new batteries for the vibrator.
Another woman shared, “My Phd sister-in-law (now passed) was very sexually promiscuous, to the extreme of bringing home men from the bar with her husband and son right there in the house and also taking off with men she met for days at a time.”
The fear that a loved one will go to jail because of inappropriate sexual behavior is real. The tragic story of Joseph Heverin in Delaware serves as a reminder of just how dangerous it can be. Joseph was convicted twice of unlawful sexual contact, something that his family believes stemmed from the effects of Juvenile Huntington’s disease—hypersexuality and poor impulse control. His mother, Dianne says she had reached out to mobile crisis and mental health before the police became involved. Because he had just turned 18, Joseph was considered an adult, even though he was disabled, and he spent about nine months in jail, waiting for sentencing. At 21, he was admitted to Dover Health Behavioral Systems for depression. Dover Behavioral, a short-stay psychiatric facility, tried for a year to move Joseph but was unable to find a place that would accept him because he’d been labeled a sex offender. At the age of 22, Joseph choked to death on a grilled cheese sandwich while eating without supervision at Dover Behavioral. Although his mother fought hard for justice, no one was ever found culpable for his death.
So what can we do about hypersexuality and inappropriate sexual behavior with our loved ones? First, we must recognize that it’s not their fault; this is the HD/JHD brain acting. While it involves problems with executive functioning (lack of judgement, poor impulse control), Dr. LaVonne Goodman considers it a part of OCB (Obsessive Compulsive Behaviors). Goodman, an internal medicine doctor in Washington state who lost her first husband to HD and is the founder of Huntington’s Disease Drug Works, notes that, “These behaviors rarely occur in isolation and are associated with anxiety, depression, agitation and can occasional [sic] be associated with delusional thoughts.” (http://hddrugworks.org/treatments/obsessive-compulsive-behavior)
Her approach to treatment includes both behavioral and pharmacologic approaches. Behavioral strategies include both a “do” and “don’t” list:
“Do” behavioral strategies include modifying the environment by simplifying life:
- Regular schedules/routines. If change is necessary give advance warning
- Allow more time for accomplishing activities
- Identify triggers of overstimulation like noise, too rapid requests/demands
- Non judgemental response
- Give time to cool down
Don’t behavioral strategies:
- Don’t try to rationalize or convince
- Don’t respond with anger
First line treatments are SSRI antidepressant drugs, several of which have been FDA approved for obsessive compulsive symptoms. These include fluoxetine (Prozac®), paroxetine (Paxil®), sertraline (Zoloft®), and fluvoxamine (Luvox®). The NSRI antidepressant drug venlafaxine (Effexor®) has been approved for severe anxiety and is also used for obsessive compulsive symptoms. Duloxetine (Cymbalta®) is a good alterntative NSRI. Often higher doses of these drugs are needed than those used for depression. Clomipramine (Anafranil®) that has combined SSRI and tricyclic that can be used in more severe presentation, but is not used first due to greater side effects than SSRI or NSRI drugs. Mirtazepine (Remeron®) is an atypical antidepressant that is FDA approved for obsessive compulsive disorders.
Antipsychotic are not the drugs of choice for obsessive compulsive symptoms, but are often added if this symptom causes agitation.
Another article in Huntington’s Disease News concurs:
Disinhibition can be one of the most troublesome symptoms in Huntington’s disease, particularly for the family and caregivers. Milder symptoms can include speaking out of turn, embarrassing remarks, and childish behavior. More socially compromising behaviors, such as inappropriate sexual remarks, hypersexual behavior or exhibitionism can be particularly troubling.
Studies also show that disinhibition is closely linked to delusions, irritability, and agitation, suggesting that the symptoms may be on a spectrum of more classical psychotic symptoms, also commonly seen in Huntington’s.
The problems may also be more severe in younger Huntingtin gene carriers. The reviewers noted that disinhibition can be treated both with behavioral interventions and with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Drugs used for behavioral problems in frontotemporal dementia might also be valuable. (https://huntingtonsdiseasenews.com/2016/09/29/psychiatric-and-behavioral-symptoms-in-huntingtons-ignored-in-research-review-finds/)
Others report having their loved ones put on a medication that lowers the sex drive. As always, consult with your loved one’s doctor before making any medication changes.
Most importantly, recognize that it’s okay to talk about this problem, that it’s a symptom that, if left unchecked, can lead to legal problems, and that it IS treatable! Keep talking because this subject is no longer taboo!