February 1, 1998
This month, the medical center will open its new Center for Sexual Health, the only clinical and research institute in the country to provide multidisciplinary clinical treatment, research and education on male and female sexual health from an integrated medical and psychological perspective, says Eileen Palace, the center's director.
Palace, who has researched female sexual dysfunction for the past 10 years at the University of British Columbia and the University of Minnesota, has identified a new model of sexual arousal and response in women, a new treatment approach for sexual dysfunction and has traced a "mind-body pathway" for cognitive processes--such as strong emotions and reactions to stress--to impact physical health directly.
Palace plans for research on sexual dysfunction in women to be one major component of the new center, which is located in the Tidewater Building. The center will offer a multidisciplinary approach to research, clinical practice and education on men and women's sexual health with an emphasis on the connection between the mind and body.
"There isn't any center in the country right now that provides comprehensive care for men and women from a biobehavioral perspective and using our newly developed technology," Palace says.
The new center sets itself apart from previous research on sexual behavior by its reliance on empirical, not theoretical, research, Palace says. Sexual researchers Masters and Johnson pioneered in the field 30 years ago with theories about sexual activity, many of which Palace's current findings challenge.
At the Tulane center, Palace and her colleagues will take another approach, using controlled laboratory experiments to investigate sexual response and the causes of sexual difficulties and to develop new approaches to treatment.
"We focus on sexual health using a scientist-practitioner approach," Palace says, "where research generates and evaluates the effectiveness of new treatment approaches and clinical practice generates new ideas for future research."
Sexual health involves various medical disciplines, so Palace has associate professorships in four different departments that jointly operate the new center--psychiatry and neurology, obstetrics and gynecology, surgery and urology. The center will include faculty and staff from all of these disciplines, plus social workers and therapists as clinical faculty.
Palace looked for a university that welcomed interdisciplinary approaches to research when she searched for a major city in which to establish her center. Tulane's new Center of Excellence for Research on Women, headed by Judith LaRosa, chair of the applied health sciences department, offered such an environment, she says.
Tulane was also a familiar institution for Palace, who spent a year here in the early 1990s completing a predoctoral internship. Palace's research on sexual dysfunction in women will be housed in the center's Sexual Psychophysiology Clinic and will offer insight into rarely studied areas.
Approximately 23.5 million women experience orgasm disorders, she says, and desire disorders affect about 15 million women in this country. Treating sexual dysfunction--such as low arousal and desire or orgasm and pain disorders--can help alleviate other health problems, Palace adds. Depression can result from dissatisfaction with sexual functioning, and relationship tensions and stress can emerge between partners with sexual difficulties.
"Another problem is that men will stop taking prescribed cardiovascular medications and risk increasing their chance of a heart attack because of the side effect of difficulty achieving or maintaining erections," Palace says. "Behavioral medicine approaches are available to complement traditional medicine by teaching individuals to change thoughts and behaviors that alter physiological response."
The findings from her research have implications not only for sexual dysfunction, Palace says, but also "for the treatment of other common types of psychological and medical disorders, such as anxiety, infertility and cancer."
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