7 Dec 2015
Dr Tristram Wyatt is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford, and an Emiritus Fellow of the University’s Kellog College. His primary research interest is in the evolution of pheromones and animal behaviour. His award-winning book called Pheromones and Animal Behaviour provides a fascinating, holistic and evolutionary perspective of the study of pheromones. On 18 November 2015, Dr Wyatt gave a lecture, titled ‘Human Pheromones: Where Did We Go Wrong and What Should We Do Next?’ organised by SCI’s London Regional Group in coordination with New York University London.
During a comprehensive overview of pheromones and related research, Dr Wyatt explained that pheromones are chemical signals that have evolved for intraspecies communication. Since the identification of a female silk moth sex pheromone in 1959, the idea of human pheromones has fascinated the public. Although some scientists have proposed a number of compounds, specifically androstenone, androstenol, androstadienone and estratetraenol, as human pheromones, Dr Wyatt explained that no concrete scientific evidence exists to support these claims. Two of these ‘myth’ molecules can be traced back to a 1991 paper by Monti-Bloch and Grosser, which discussed the use of human pheromone molecules without giving any details of how they were identified or extracted. Only the name of the company that supplied the molecules, the EROX Corporation, was mentioned. This claim was further amplified through endorsement by leading scientists. Hundreds of citations were generated, but no one had looked critically at the original source. Positive publication bias and lack of replication also contributed to a false sense of excitement. Even though scientific evidence is currently lacking, Dr Wyatt thinks that humans, as mammals, are still very likely to have pheromones.
Since 1959, many mammals have been found to possess pheromones, including mice, rabbits, and goats. Yet, the search for human pheromones is still on-going. Scientists should be sceptical of studies that refer to the EROX Corporation’s two widely-cited steroid molecules, and the other two that preceded them, as human pheromones. In order to find human pheromones, Dr Wyatt suggests we use identification methods that were successful among other species. He states that this must be done through the ‘demonstration of an odour-mediated behavioural or physiological response, identification and synthesis of the bioactive molecules, followed by bioassay confirmation of activity.’ Dr Wyatt believes an excellent place to start research is in human sebaceous glands. He described how a recent study has found that nipple secretions from the areola gland of all lactating mothers stimulate the suckling of any infant, not just those of the mothers’ own children. Dr Wyatt referred to this finding as ‘the most promising lead’ in current human pheromone research.
After the lecture, Dr Wyatt stayed on for further discussion over the refreshments that followed it, served in the panelled reception room at NYUL, 6 Bedford Square.
Christina Octavia Martin, Neuroscience major, NYU
Shihui Wang, Chemistry major, NYU
Wyatt, T.D. (2014) Pheromones and Animal Behavior: Chemical Signals and Signatures, 2nd edn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Wyatt, T.D. (2015) The search for human pheromones: the lost decades and the necessity of returning to first principles. Proc Roy Soc B: 282: 2014.2994