Yes, Virginia, There Is a Pheromone

From the WebMD Archives

April 7, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Women who are nervous, tense, or suffering from PMS might want to try snuggling up to a man -- preferably one who is hairy and hasn't showered recently. A new study indicates that women who sniff a chemical found in male skin and body hair can reduce nervousness, tension, and other negative feelings.

The study, published in a recent issue of Pschoneuroendocrinology, appears to confirm the existence of a chemical found on human skin that can change the mood and behavior of other people. And the chemical gains access to the brain through an organ previously believed to serve no function, according to the study's authors.

This type of chemical, known as a pheromone, is known to be important in the animal kingdom and is responsible for many aspects of animal sexual behavior. The finding that these chemicals also work in humans may lead to new drugs and a new type of drug-delivery system. In the meantime, it has led to a new drug company.

Human pheromones have been a subject of debate and research for decades. In order for a chemical to meet the definition of a pheromone, it not only has to have an effect on a person's nervous system, it must also alter their behavior. Pheromones are undetected by the people whom they affect.

"We definitely found that human beings communicate with each other with pheromones, just like any terrestrial animal, and they do it through the same organ that all these terrestrial animals have, which is a vomeronasal organ [VNO], which all human beings have," David L. Berliner, MD, an author of the study, tells WebMD.

Berliner, who is now president and CEO of Pherin Pharmaceuticals, says that when he was a professor of anatomy at the University of Utah, he took it for granted that the human VNO didn't perform any function. In humans, VNOs exist in small pits inside the nose, but they are very different from the parts of the nose that detect smells.

Berliner and colleagues at Pherin and the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City set out to see whether a substance called androstadienone would act as a pheromone on 40 women ages 20 to 45.

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The pheromone they studied is a steroid, derived from the male sex hormone testosterone. It exists most prominently on the male skin surface and body hair. Before and after they were given the chemical, the women were asked a battery of questions about their feelings, moods, and personality. Their breath and heart rates, temperature, heartbeat, and other bodily signs were also measured.

The chemical was applied directly to the VNOs of the research subjects through a small tube. One second of exposure was enough to produce a response. Researchers found that the women became less nervous and tense, and had fewer negative feelings, when the pheromone was applied. They concluded that the substance had the ability to change human behavior and was therefore a pheromone.

Other researchers have laid claim to nailing down the existence of pheromones, most notably Martha McClintock, a researcher at the University of Chicago. She recently published a study on the mood-altering effect of two steroids, androstadienone and estratetaene. So what's new about Berliner's work?

In one respect, he says, nothing. Berliner tells WebMD that he and his colleagues made some of these discoveries as much as 10 years ago. The key was the body's use of the VNO as a pathway for pheromones. That, Berliner says, he wanted to keep "quiet."

"Studies have been going on for many years, but it's just now being published because we had to have the patents," Berliner tells WebMD.

Is there a pheromone love potion in the pipeline? Berliner says they're looking. Because the part of the human brain affected by the chemical is the center for desire, "it won't be a pill that produces erection; it's going to be a spray that just makes you desire, nothing more than that."

As for androstadienone in particular, there's "no sexual effect, not at all. Anybody claiming that this pheromone is sexually attractive is a fake, a fraud. However, it can make a woman feel less negative, and there's no question the negativity goes way down, and that helps a lot in the communication between a man and a woman," Berliner tells WebMD.

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He says his company is working with others to develop a spray using synthesized chemicals delivered to the VNO. Different products may help women with PMS, or women and men who suffer from acute anxiety attacks.

George Preti, PhD, who is with the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, says McClintock's research makes different claims, in one way, than Berliner's, because she doesn't say that the VNO has an active role in the passage of chemicals.

Preti tells WebMD he is skeptical about the latest findings. "The preponderance of data would suggest that the VNO is not functioning in adult humans," he says.

"One must always view things like this with skepticism, because someone with a particular financial position is making statements and doing experiments on things that are going to make him money," he tells WebMD. "Until it's repeated by an independent third or second party, it's kind of hard to say what's real and what's not sometimes."

Vital Information:

  • New research has provided further evidence for the existence of a human pheromone, a natural chemical that can alter female behavior by reducing nervousness, tension, and other negative states.
  • Scientists believe that the vomeronasal organ in the nose, which was previously believed to serve no function, receives the pheromone signals and relays them to the brain.
  • One observer expresses skepticism about the latest findings, noting that one of the researchers is in a position to benefit financially.
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