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Neural Processing of Body Odor

By: Johan Lundström
Posted: August 11, 2009, from the August 2009 issue of GCI Magazine.

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Though it is true that body odors contain signals that aid individuals in selecting a partner whose genetic makeup complements their own (thus benefiting their future children by passing on a more diverse and hence more responsive immune system), the effect of these signals is quite small for any given couple, but highly important in the evolutionary time scale. Nonetheless, body odors are consistently listed as one of the more important criteria used when selecting a partner, although they are typically cited as reasons to reject a potential mate rather than as an attractant. It is not clear whether deodorants and antiperspirants mask or eradicate body odor signals. The identities of the specific chemicals responsible for these signaling effects and the gland(s) that emit them are also unknown. The apocrine glands are suspected to be involved because they become active around puberty and are concentrated in pubic and underarm areas. Until the origin and nature of the volatile chemicals responsible for biologically important odors are known, one can only speculate about the impact of hygienic products and behavior on the biological message conveyed in body odors. However, based on the scientific evidence to date, it is perhaps unwise and probably even useless to try to spread personal chemical signals by refraining from showering before social activities. Or to put it more frankly, smelling someone’s sweat is seldom a purely pleasurable experience.

Knowledge of odor perception has now reached the stage where it is reasonable to begin pondering ways to enhance the positive emotional and informational signals concealed within body odors, while simultaneously reducing the conscious negative odor percept. And because smelling the odor of someone you love or someone you are related to can be a soothing, pleasant experience, perhaps a therapeutic potential in these types of odors could be identified. Finally, wouldn’t it be intriguing if you could one day eliminate those awkward first dates and instead, sniff out your future partner using samples of body odor?

(This article was first published in the April 2009 issue of Perfumer & Flavorist magazine.)

References:

  1. JN Lundstrom, JA Boyle, RJ Zatorre and M Jones-Gotman, The Neuronal Substrates of Human Olfactory Based Kin Recognition. Hum Brain Mapp (In press)
  2. D Penn and WK Potts, Chemical signals and parasite-mediated sexual selection. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 13(10), 391–396 (1998)
  3. K Yamazaki and GK Beauchamp, Genetic basis for MHC-dependent mate choice. Adv Genet, 59, 129–145 (2007)
  4. JN Lundstrom, JA Boyle, RJ Zatorre and M Jones-Gotman, Functional Neuronal Processing of Body Odors Differ from That of Similar Common Odors. Cereb Cortex, 18(6), 1466–1474 (2008)
  5. JN Lundstrom, MJ Olsson, B Schaal and T Hummel, A putative social chemosignal elicits faster cortical responses than perceptually similar odorants. Neuroimage, 30(4), 1340–1346 (2006)

Johan Lundström is an assistant member/scientist at Monell Chemical Senses Center.