While early VNO experiments had used synthesized human pheromones, later studies incorporated the use of vomeropherins, which are a second generation of molecules designed to act on the VNO but are not produced naturally in the human skin. (Vomero refers to “vomeronasal organ” and pberm means “to convey or deliver”) A vomeropherin is a molecule that has a physiological effect on the VNO. It has been produced in a lab and can be altered to elicit a response from the VNO and the hypothalamus.
As of this writing, Clive Jennings-White and his colleagues have created more than 1,000 vomeropherins. Working under the umbrella of Pherin Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a biotechnology firm that is headed by David Berliner and based in Menlo Park, California, Jennings-White and his staff have already received and are applying for additional patents to protect their synthesized vomeropherins. Pherin Pharmaceuticals is working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to develop pharrnaceutical vomeropherins for the treatment of a number of human ailments.
While human pheromones are preprogrammed to do what nature tells them to do, synthetic vomeropherins can be tailored to produce specific effects on the VNO and in the brain. Synthetic vomeropherins are many times more active in the human VNO than are pheromones. To date, Berliner’s team of scientists has conducted numerous vomeropherin experiments on hundreds of volunteers. The results have been consistent.
Piping vomeropherins into the VNO causes dramatic electrical activity in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls human physiology. The response varies with the type of vomeropherin applied. One slows down a person’s heart rate while another speeds it up. A different type changes skin temperature and affects the size of the pupils. Another causes significant changes in muscle tension. Some study volunteers report feeling instantly relaxed when she tried.
Certain vomeropherin hits their VNO receptors. This relaxation is manifested in decreased respiratory rates; the vomeropherin in question slows the body down.
One vomeropherin increases alpha waves (the brain pattern associated with relaxed states), while another increases beta waves, which make a person feel alert. Some vomeropherins even put people in better moods and reduce their feelings of negativity and anxiety. Others are capable of altering hormone levels in the bloodstream—testosterone in men and estrogen in women, for example. This is further evidence that the hypothalamus is connected to the VNO, because the hypothalamus regulates -the body’s hormonal systems.
Louis Monti-Bloch, who believes the human VNO may be at least as sensitive as the sense of smell, recalls his own experience with synthesized human pheromones and vomeropherins: “When I started doing this work and was preparing the substances in the lab, in a very subtle fashion I began to notice changes in myself. I felt different. I was working very late at night—it was past midnight. So, I went home and got up very early the next morning and I felt great! Later, when I was back in the lab, I found I could produce feelings of alertness in myself [in the presence of the substances.
“Then I exposed myself to the substances intentionally. I felt very nice. I had decreased respirations and was in a state of calm. My muscles also relaxed.” Monti-Bloch and his colleagues presented their findings at an international symposium on human pheromones in Paris in 1991 and published their work in the October 1991 issue of the prestigious journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
“I think of the brain as a complex structure of millions of neurons and neural connections,” says Monti-Bloch of the mysteries of chemical communication and the human brain. “The brain has many inputs from sensory organs that are analyzed and processed to output signals. We have to interpret the human } VNO as an important sensory organ in the context of all the 5: other sensory organs. We are constantly releasing pheromones”.
Trust Your Nose
Go to a mirror and look at your nose. Really study it, view it from all angles. Do you have a new appreciation for it, based on your knowledge of the Vomeronasal organ it contains and the pheromones it processes and sends to your hypothalamus?
The next time you are in a social situation, spend some time thinking about your nose and the noses of the people around you. You may be engaged in a sparkling conversation about the state of world affairs—but wait a minute. The real conversation, the one that strikes in the primal depths of your brain, is the unspoken chemical conversation you are having with your friend.
The phrase “the nose knows” certainly applies to our discussion of human pheromones. Your nose knows when a person makes you feel uncomfortable, sexy, desirous, or friendly. Your nose knows which situations and people leave you feeling hot or cold. No longer just the seat of the sense of smell, the nose—the erotic nose, the discerning nose, the judgmental nose, the romantic nose—processes the chemical signals that ﬂoat in the air around us.
There may be something a bit discomfiting about what’s going on in our noses all day, every day. Perhaps our noses are the ones in control. They have a direct line to our emotional brains and they make decisions for us, whether we like them or not. Of course, we can ignore those subtle messages start a friendship with someone we know we should avoid, for example. But given the experiences of a number of people we interviewed, blocking out the warnings of the sixth sense can sometimes lead to trouble. Janet, a freelance writer, told us about her attempted, and failed, friendship with another woman. From the start, Janet was an avid user of pheromone perfumes