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A whiff of pheromones

New Scientist

WOMEN suffering from premenstrual syndrome may soon get instant relief from a mix of pheromones, the airborne chemical messengers best known for their role in animal mating behaviour. They'll get the pheromones in a simple nasal spray.

The spray's makers claim it will free women from the irritability, depression and other symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and the more severe premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Early tests on 20 women show that the spray eased both mood disorders and physical symptoms like breast pain.

PMS affects up to two out of five women of childbearing age. Many researchers now think the condition is sparked by fluctuating hormones affecting brain activity. As a treatment doctors often prescribe mood-altering drugs such as Prozac, which works by elevating serotonin levels in the brain.

Human pheromones are powerful mediators of sexual attraction, anxiety and hormone-related disorders, says David Berliner, one of the founders of Pherin Pharmaceuticals of Mountain View, California, the company developing the spray.

For years, few researchers believed human pheromones existed, but over the past decade Berliner and others have shown that these chemicals, exuded from human skin, can induce calmness in the opposite sex (New Scientist, 25 January 1997, p 36). The chemicals are detected by a specialised organ in the nose, called the vomeronasal organ or VNO.

To target premenstrual syndrome, Pherin has developed a pheromone-like compound or "vomeropherin" known as PH80. With each inhalation, PH80 binds to receptors in the VNO. Nerve cells then speed the message to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain dedicated to maintaining homeostasis, the body's chemical balance.

Because the vomeropherin has a direct line to the brain, relief is immediate. The effect lasts 2 to 4 hours, says Berliner. Pherin is now setting up full clinical trials of the spray. "It's an intriguing and novel approach," says Bruce Kessel, a specialist in PMS at the University of Hawaii.

Functional MRI scans show that a whiff of PH80 stimulates a region of the hypothalamus thought to affect PMS. The hypothalamus is involved in both the central nervous system and the endocrine system, regulating sexual drive, anxiety, fear and appetite among other traits. Berliner's team is now developing different vomeropherins which they hope will target these behaviours.

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Author: Catherine Zandonella, San Francisco

New Scientist issue: 21st July 2001

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