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NIDCD Grantees Report Connections between Sense of Smell and Reproduction
Two NIDCD grantees, Catherine Dulac, Ph.D. and Linda B. Buck Ph.D., report ground-breaking work on the association between olfaction ( the sense of smell) and reproduction in the November 18, 2005, issue of the journal Cell.
Dulac and her colleagues have found that the olfactory system plays an important role in sexual behavior in mice. Before this study, it was thought that the main olfactory system is responsible for the detection of air-borne odors, while the accessory olfaction system (also known as the vomeronasal system) is responsible for pheromone detection. (We detect odors with our sense of smell, whereas pheromones are more subtle, often barely detectable compounds that are secreted to communicate the reproductive state of the animal, such as when attracting a mate.) These new findings demonstrate that the main olfactory system in mice has a dual function, contributing to both odor and pheromone detection. The investigators suggest that a similar system of detecting odors and pheromones may exist in humans. Read more about the research.
Buck and her colleagues have discovered in mice a vast network of neurons that control the release of reproductive hormones. This network also interconnects with areas of the brain involved in the processing of odors and pheromones. The investigators found direct connections between brain areas that relay pheromone signals as well as those that relay odor signals. These connections provide the opportunity for incoming odor and pheromone signals to influence reproductive behavior. Although more data are needed, these studies indicate that if human pheromones exist, they might also have access to the brain pathways that are involved in the hormonal control of reproduction. Read more about the research.