Pheromone Perfume

We're soothed by love, made confident by success. Our body temperature, breathing and brain waves react to stress. We're sexually aroused by the way someone looks or acts.That's the simple view. It's beginning to look as though we're also sexually aroused by unseen chemicals. We're calmed by a sixth sense that relays unconscious messages to the heart of our brain. We're soothed by snuggling into skin soaked with the right molecules.That's why scientists here and in Vienna are researching "human pheromones" and the "human vomeronasal organ" (VNO) that they claim receives them. Skeptics distrust the model because it's emerging from a mist of profits, patents and trade secrets. Yet the prospect of a sixth human sense neatly parallels everything science has already confirmed in insects, reptiles and mammals. Most of us are getting our first whiff of the new research from a perfume bottle. Dr. David Moran, staff scientist with Erox Corp. and, in their estimation, "one of the world's leading authorities on the science of human pheromones," visited St. Louis last week to explain the research behind Inner Realm, a new fragrance said to make women feel serene, confident, "empowered." We at The Riverfront Times were poised to ridicule this as the latest alchemy, materializing profit out of hyperstressed women's emotional needs.Maybe it is. But it's also much more. A sensory neurobiologist who graduated from Princeton and researched cell biology at Harvard, Moran specialized in the olfactory system. With the help of ear-nose-and-throat clinicians, he confirmed the presence of a tiny organ in just about every human nose called the vomeronasal organ. About one centimeter up each nostril, nestled near the cartilage of the inner wall, sits a narrow, inelegant "pit." Behind it lies a tube sprinkled with VNO receptor cells. Physicians had acknowledged this "human VNO" 300 years ago, but it soon dropped out of the textbooks, dismissed as a "vestige" with no current function. Now, some scientists are claiming it's alive, and it creates a sensory path parallel to, but entirely separate from, our sense of smell. Believers in this sixth sense say it relays biochemical signals to the hypothalamus, which regulates the body's internal state (temperature, breathing, brain waves, hormonal levels) and involves itself with fear, rage, lust and mood. The biochemical signals come to us from other humans by way of odorless steroid molecules named pheromones, from the Greek phero, "I carry," and hormone, "to excite." They're found in human skin -- especially around the nose and mouth, armpits and groin -- and in urine and vaginal secretions. We've long known about pheromones in the animal world, with the social insects (bees, ants and termites) running especially busy switchboards. Researchers have watched pregnant mice abort their fetuses when exposed to urine from male mice other than the father. Male hamsters turn into gay necrophiliacs, copulating readily with anesthetized male hamsters who've been scented with aphrodisin (a pheromone secreted in a female hamster's vagina). Inspired by animal lust, many companies have introduced animal pheromones into human fragrances. "A lot of them use pig pheromones," notes Moran. "I think the trade name's Boar's Breath -- it's a steroid they spray on pigs at mating time!" But like all those gold-chained, hairy-chested guys drenched in musk, ladies wearing postmodern pig perfume are sending the wrong signals. Pheromones are species-specific. Erox is the only manufacturer using synthesized, human-identical pheromones in its fragrances. When Realm for men and Realm for women hit the market, consumers assumed they were attracting the opposite sex. Actually, they were wearing the opposite sex, thus exhibiting more confidence and bliss. Inner Realm has a new pheromone component (noted on the packaging only by U.S. patent number) but it's still weighted toward the male. "You're not allowed to put aphrodisiacs in perfume," Moran notes. While Erox makes us happy, its sister company, Pherin Corp. of Menlo Park, Calif., researches pharmaceutical applications. By creating molecular structures that can travel into the body through the VNO, they say they can use amazingly small concentrations (a millionth of a gram in some cases) without side effects. Already in the works: a PMS medicine that acts immediately, giving orders to the hypothalamus to change the level of certain hormones. This technique may also relieve mood disorders, anxiety attacks, endocrine diseases -- the list is endless.Both Pherin and Erox were founded by an anatomist, Dr. David Berliner. And that's where the real story starts.In the late '50s, Berliner was investigating the composition of human skin. Every time he left certain vials of extract open, he noticed a burst of camaraderie in his cranky lab staff. Intrigued, he froze and saved the extracts. Thirty years later, he finally found a minute to thaw them and duplicate the molecules chemically. Meanwhile, in Colorado, Moran and his colleagues were reporting their findings about the VNO. Berliner contacted Moran and said he'd suspected as much. The pheromone experiments took off. In one double-blind study, subjects sniffed plain air, synthesized pheromones, plain solution and clove essence, and researchers measured the response. The VNO reacted only to the human pheromone. The olfactory system reacted only to the clove essence. Then, to refute doubts of the VNO's connection to the brain, Dr. Louis Monti at the University of Utah placed a tiny capillary tube at the VNO entrance and measured electrical response.To date, Erox chemists have isolated and duplicated 20 different human pheromones, "all with slightly different effects," Moran says, and all gender-specific. "The VNOs of male volunteers became electrically excited in response to a steroid found in women's skin" and vice versa, Erox reports. Apparently women feel safer when they sense a male protector, and both sexes feel more confident when their skin gives off the glow of recent lovemaking. Last June, in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Berliner's team reported that when tiny doses of a synthesized pheromone were sprayed on the VNO pits of 10 men, they chilled: Their breathing and heart rates slowed, their capillaries dilated, their alpha wave activity increased. The pheromone also increased the time between the men's hormonal pulses (it did nothing for women) and, according to Erox, the men's testosterone levels fell."We have for the first time been able to manipulate the primitive brain through a nerve connection," exulted Berliner, "using derivatives of human pheromones that stimulate the human VNO." What took 'em so long? "People like to be in control of things," observes Moran, his eyes twinkling. "Pheromones act at the level of the unconscious. They act directly on the hypothalamus, which is the seat of the emotions." Skeptics point out that not all primates have a VNO. (Berliner says they just haven't looked hard enough.) Skeptics also say the gender differences in pheromone response could come from a different mucus layer and not involve the brain at all. They suggest the human VNO may be active early in human development, then cease to function. When we sought a comment from Dr. Joseph Price, professor of anatomy and neurobiology at Washington University Medical School, he began, "In the first place, the human doesn't really have a VNO." How could Monti have recorded electrical responses from its cells? "They say they recorded from the VNO?" He paused to think. "The only reason for thinking we don't have one," he admitted, "is that it's never been found." Perhaps the electricity came from a facial nerve, offered Price. But Monti claims to have isolated single receptor cells from the VNO and recorded their activity. "Well, that is certainly suggestive. But even if we have one, it may not have connections with the brain. Humans have very little, if any, accessory olfactory bulb" (a relay station from receptor cells to the brain). Could there be any other pathway to the brain? "There is another nerve which does project directly into the hypothalamus and does enervate the nasal area," Price said slowly, "but actually, little is known about that nerve. It has some connection with the hormone system that is used to regulate sexual function." So there could be a link? "One would be reluctant to dismiss it."Berliner says endocrinologists in Western Europe understand his discoveries quite well; his team has been invited to lecture at three international medical meetings this year. Even the Erox fragrances are opening "a Pandora's box," he believes. "If a human being is capable of feeling good about himself, of being content, to me that's very dramatic. And there is data."Even in bliss, there is suspicion -- what if somebody isolates some negative pheromones? "Oh, I have already," Berliner replies. "We have all kinds of pheromones. Just as there is one that decreases negativity, there is one that makes you feel very negative. We will never use it, obviously."Let's hope not, because thus far, regulation is minimal. Because pheromones are naturally occurring, are nontoxic and function at tiny concentration levels, they need no FDA approval. You can't overdose; the receptor cells simply overload. It's like walking into a cedar closet -- your nose desensitizes, then, with a few gulps of fresh air, its powers are restored. Pheromones' effects vary with the person and the day. "This is just one of many things that influence behavior," concedes Moran, listing "a woman's menstrual cycle, her mood, what happened that morning." Still, he refuses to call pheromonal effects "subtle." "Our VNO response is as pronounced as other animals'," he insists, "but we can override it with a lot more conscious capabilities." We also shower away our pheromones, then put on clothes that block the rest of them. Moran says it's no accident that southern climes where people sweat more, bathe less fastidiously and wear fewer clothes tend to be more laid-back, sexy and carefree. You thought it was the grass skirts, right?James V. Kohl, scientist and coauthor of The Scent of Eros: Mysteries of Odor in Human Sexuality, says that "sexual chemistry is not as visual as people think it is. We are taught to think about what we see when these pheromones are acting on us. We don't think about what we are experiencing at the emotional core of our brain." What if you're gay? Kohl mentions animal models of homosexuality in which odor plays a role in attraction. As for humans, Price -- who by now is getting interested -- says, "There are some very small nuclei in the hypothalamus which show gender differences, and there's a report that, in gay men, they look like the female pattern. We don't know what these nuclei do -- they could have something to do with sexual preference, and they are in the right place to be influenced by the system these people are talking about." Finally, what about all the poor people with bobbed noses? Until recently, plastic surgeons have routinely removed VNOs during nose jobs. Just a few weeks ago, a thickly accented German doctor made a trans-Atlantic call begging Moran to come teach them how to preserve the VNO.Surely we're flexible creatures, well able to compensate if deprived of our messenger molecules? Moran says, yeah, but he sure wouldn't want to lose his. Price, who's less invested, just smiles. "Humans are wonderfully complex creatures. We tend not to put all our eggs in one basket."

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