What is the role of testosterone in the pathogenesis of erectile dysfunction (ED)?

Updated: Aug 08, 2018
  • Author: Edward David Kim, MD, FACS; Chief Editor: Edward David Kim, MD, FACS  more...
  • Print
Answer

Both ED and low testosterone (hypogonadism) increase with age. The incidence of the latter is 40% in men aged 45 years and older. [15] Testosterone is known to be important in mood, cognition, vitality, bone health, and muscle and fat composition. It also plays a key role in sexual dysfunction (eg, low libido, poor erection quality, ejaculatory or orgasmic dysfunction, reduced spontaneous erections, or reduced sexual activity). [16]

The association between low testosterone and ED is not entirely clear. Although these 2 processes certainly overlap in some instances, they are distinct entities. Some 2-21% of men have both hypogonadism and ED; however, it is unclear to what degree treating the former will improve erectile function. [17] About 35-40% of men with low testosterone see an improvement in their erections with testosterone replacement; however, almost 65% of these men see no improvement. [15]

One study examined the role of testosterone supplementation in hypogonadal men with ED. These men were considered nonresponders to sildenafil, and their erections were monitored by assessing nocturnal penile tumescence (NPT). After these men were given testosterone transdermally for 6 months, the number of NPTs increased, as did the maximum rigidity with sildenafil. [18] This study suggests that a certain level of testosterone may be necessary for PDE5 inhibitors to function properly.

In a randomized double-blind, parallel, placebo-controlled trial, sildenafil plus testosterone was not superior to sildenafil plus placebo in improving erectile function in men with ED and low testosterone levels. [19] The objective of the study was to determine whether the addition of testosterone to sildenafil therapy improves erectile response in men with ED and low testosterone levels.

However, in contrast, a recent systematic review of published studies, the authors concluded that overall, the addition of testosterone to PDE-5 inhibitors might benefit patients with ED associated with testosterone levels of less than 300 ng/dL (10.4 nmol/L) who failed monotherapy. [20] A limitation of existing studies are their heterogeneous nature and methodological drawbacks.

The mechanisms by which testosterone plays a role in erectile function are not completely understood. A study evaluating the effect of testosterone on erections in surgically castrated rabbits and control animals, in which the rabbits’ intracavernosal pressures were compared after cavernosal nerve stimulation, determined that castrated rabbits had much lower pressures after stimulation than control rabbits did. [21] Notably, the pressures increased when castrated rabbits received exogenous testosterone replacement.

Another study compared the response of surgically and medically castrated rabbits to vardenafil with that of control rabbits. [22] Castrated rabbits did not respond to vardenafil, whereas noncastrated rabbits did respond appropriately. This result suggests that a minimum amount of testosterone is necessary for PDE5 inhibitors to produce an erection.

Another study found that castrated rats had erections if given testosterone alone or dihydrotestosterone (DHT) and 5-alpha reductase inhibitors but not if given testosterone and 5-alpha reductase inhibitors. [23] This finding suggests that DHT is the active component and is necessary at a certain level for rats to have an erection.

This study also measured intracavernosal pressure to monitor erections and NOS activity in the penile cytosol. [23] NO levels correlated with intracavernosal pressure, which suggests that testosterone and DHT act through NOS. Testosterone and DHT may act at the genomic level to stimulate production of NOS.

It appears that testosterone has NOS-independent pathways as well. In one study, castrated rats were implanted with testosterone pellets and then divided into a group that received an NOS inhibitor (L-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester [L-NAME]) and a control group that received no enzyme. [24] The castrated rats that were given testosterone pellets and L-NAME still had partial erections, a result suggesting the presence of a pathway independent of NOS activity.


Did this answer your question?
Additional feedback? (Optional)
Thank you for your feedback!