Pheromone signal transduction in humans: what can be learned from olfactory loss.
Because humans seem to lack neuronal elements in the vomeronasal organ (VNO), many scientists believe that humans are unable to detect pheromones. This view is challenged by the observations that pheromone-like compounds, 4,16-androstadien-3-one (AND) and oestra-1,3,5(10),16-tetraen-3-ol (EST), activate the human hypothalamus. Whether these activations are mediated via VNO, venous blood or olfactory mucosa is presently unknown. To disentangle between the three alternatives, we conducted activation studies in 12 heterosexual males with chronic anosmia because of nasal polyps. Polyposis hampers signal transduction via the olfactory mucosa without interfering with the VNO or the pheromone transport via venous blood. Twelve healthy men served as controls. Subjects were investigated with (15)O-H(2)O PET during smelling of odorless air (base line), AND, EST, vanillin, and acetone. Smelling of EST activated the anterior hypothalamus in controls, but not anosmics. Neither did the anosmics display cerebral activations with AND or vanillin. Clusters were detected only with the trigeminal odorant acetone, and only in the thalamus, brainstem, the anterior cingulate, and parts of the sensorimotor cortex. Direct comparisons with controls (controls-anosmics) showed clusters in the olfactory cortex (amygdala and piriform cortex) with AND, vanillin, and acetone, and in the anterior hypothalamus with EST. The observed absence of olfactory and presence of trigeminal activations in anosmics indicates that polyposis primarily affected signal processing via the olfactory mucosa. The anosmics inability to activate the hypothalamus with EST, therefore, suggests that in healthy men EST signals were primarily transmitted via the olfactory system.