Animals Use Pheromones to Communicate, but Do Humans?
"It's unheard of that a family of 100 genes in mice is reduced to a single gene in humans," said the study's senior author, Peter Mombaerts, MD, PhD.
In most mammals, pheromones usually are detected by a specialized organ inside the nose or mouth called the vomeronasal organ, or VNO. Nerves connect it to parts of the brain involved in reactions rather than cognition.
In humans, the organ appears in embryos with its nerve cells extending into the developing brain. For several weeks, it serves as a pathway for hormones vital to sexual development and maturity. However, most experts believe that the VNO in humans shrinks and stops working before birth.
In April, however, researchers in Utah reported that they found a pheromone that seemed to help reduce nervousness, tension, and other stress in women. The report, which was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, announced that the chemical worked through the VNO pathway.
"We definitely found that human beings communicate with each other with pheromones, just like any terrestrial animal," study co-author David L. Berliner, MD, told WebMD in April. "And they do it through the same organ that all these terrestrial animals have, which is a vomeronasal organ, which all human beings have."
Berliner and his team reported that a metabolic product of testosterone, called androstadienone, could trigger the VNO when the molecule was introduced to participants through a tiny tube. Androstadienone is found on the surface of body hair and skin in men.
Berliner, president and CEO of Pherin Pharmaceuticals, told WebMD that androstadienone doesn't trigger sexual responses, so love potions may not be in the near future with this molecule. But other products are possible, such as those that use the VNO to soothe anxiety attacks and premenstrual syndrome.
Several studies have linked pheromones to a woman's reproductive system. In 1998, a study at the University of Chicago demonstrated that pheromones in underarm sweat prompt women living in close quarters to synchronize their menstrual cycles.
Some companies put pheromones in perfumes. Chemical makers bait insect traps with pheromones.
Mombaerts said it is too early to tell whether the gene discovery might lead to pheromone-based medicines.
However, the potential for pheromone misuse worries some researchers and bioethicists.
"Safeguards will be needed to prevent the manipulation of human behavior," Falke said. "We won't want pheromones showing up in magazine ads or pumped through ventilation systems at the mall."