Researchers Sniff Out Pheromones

If the idea of using smell to find a mate sounds like a stretch, consider a further stretch: pheromones, long-sought odorless but gender-specific chemical signals exchanged by most mammals but until recently believed to be extinct in humans.

A few years ago, Dr. Louis Monti-Bloch, a physiologist at the University of Utah, teamed up with Dr. David Berliner, a former anatomist, and tested what they believed were human pheromones on volunteers. They reported that

these elicited an electrical response in two small, vestigial pits near the volunteers’ nostrils--presumably, the pheromone receptors. Further, Berliner claimed, responses to pheromones were gender-specific. Unlike odors, which almost always affect women more than men, pheromones evoked an equally strong reaction in men and women.

Berliner promptly patented these substances and founded a company called Erox to manufacture them. Most of the scientific establishment remains skeptical, however. For one thing, says Michael Meredith, a biologist at Florida State University, Berliner and Monti-Bloch’s work has not been replicated. And Berliner’s haste to make a profit from his research seems, well, unseemly to his peers.

Yet supporting evidence is slowly accumulating. For example, Martha McClintock, a biopsychologist at the University of Chicago, confirmed that a group of women living together in a college dormitory tend to synchronize menstrual cycles, which many consider a pheromonal effect. Researchers from the University of Bern, Switzerland, found that when women were asked to choose among T-shirts worn by men who were strangers, they mysteriously selected those of men whose immune systems, according to DNA analyses, were most unlike their own--possible evidence of a built-in smell-based preference for mates who could help produce offspring with wide immunological coverage, researchers speculated.


The upshot: Don’t spend any money on a pheromonal spritz, but if you’re attracted to a stranger’s T-shirt, don’t assume it’s the logo you like.