Natural Attraction

A Sixth Sense that Affects How You Feel

By Gene Bylinksy

An imaginative University of Utah anatomist named David L. Berliner
was working with substances that occur in human skin. When he left some of the ex-
tracts in open vials around the lab, he noticed a sudden, puzzling rise in camarade-
rie among a previously acrimonious group of researchers working with him. When he
changed the extracts a few months later, the group resumed its contentious ways.

Berliner froze and saved the extracts. Nearly 30 years later, by this time a Silicon
Valley biotech  millionaire, thanks to a method of containing drugs and cosmetics
inside tiny, spongelike polymer spheres, he returned to the subject. In 1989 he set up Erox Corp., which has isolated the suspected good-fellowship pheromones-behav-
ior-controlling substances similar to those already known to stimulate sexual activity
in animals. (One whiff of a pheromone called aphrodisin from a female hamster
and a male is ready to mate.)

Then came another surprise: The pheromones were odorless and thus had no ef-
fect on the human olfactory system. What could be detecting them? That mystery led
Berliner to rediscover a tiny bean of an organ in the human nose-an event that may
prove explosive in influencing human behavior. The structure is called the vomero-
nasal organ, or VNO. (Vomer is Latin for plow; the organ sits within the mucous
membrane  that covers the plow-shaped septum, the cartilage that divides the nos-
trils.) In lower animals, the VNO serves as a receptor for sex pheromones.

Although the VNO was identified in man more than a century ago, scientists as-
sumed it had become a useless vestigial organ. Because the human VNO is small, and hidden except for a slit that leads inside, some concluded that it had atrophied.
Berliner directed his researchers to look  into the human VNO. To their astonishment, they found tlìat it acts as the receptor for a sensory system entirely separate from smelling-literally a sixth sense. They also traced a neural pathway (shown in red in the drawing), parallel to the olfactory nerves, that connects the VNO directly to the hypothalamus, the brain's control center for basic drives and emotions-sex, hunger, fear, anger-as well as for body temperature and heart rate. The scientists, Larry Stensaas and Luis Monti-Bloch, showed that Berliner's friendship pheromones act through the human VNO.

Now Erox is in the process of incorporating those feel-good pheromones into a perfume it plans to release next year. The ther possibilities for chemically manipulating human emotions are both scary and xciting. One could be welcome news for deters: Berliner has started another company, Pherin, that will explore ways to control hunger with a nasal spray that incorporates an appropriate pheromone.

The centimeter-long human vomeronasal organ (VNO), shown sliced in two in the photograph below acts as a sensor for airborne human pheromones-odorless molecules that influence sexual desire and other feelings. The molecules set off signals that are transmitted through the VNO nerves (red) directly to the hypothalamus. Smell messages travel through the parallel olfactory system (blue) to a different part of the brain

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