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Regulation of ovulation by human pheromones

Abstract

Pheromones are airborne chemical signals that are released by an individual into the environment and which affect the physiology or behaviour of other members of the same species1. The idea that humans produce pheromones has excited the imagination of scientists and the public, leading to widespread claims for their existence, which, however, has remained unproven. Here we investigate whether humans produce compounds that regulate a specific neuroendocrine mechanism in other people without being consciously detected as odours (thereby fulfilling the classic definition of a pheromone). We found that odourless compounds from the armpits of women in the late follicular phase of their menstrual cycles accelerated the preovulatory surge of luteinizing hormone of recipient women and shortened their menstrual cycles. Axillary (underarm) compounds from the same donors which were collected later in the menstrual cycle (at ovulation) had the opposite effect: they delayed the luteinizing-hormone surge of the recipients and lengthened their menstrual cycles. By showing in a fully controlled experiment that the timing of ovulation can be manipulated, this study provides definitive evidence of human pheromones.

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Figure 1: Effect of axillary compounds, donated by women during the follicular or ovulatory phases of their menstrual cycle, on the menstrual cyclelength of recipients.
Figure 2: Each of the three phases of the menstrual cycle are variable in length (x-axis) and correlate with overall menstrual cycle length (Pearson's r), establishing each as a potential mediator of the effects of axillary compounds.
Figure 3: Effect of follicular and ovulatory pheromones on the length of each of the three phases that could mediate the observed change in menstrual-cycle length.

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Acknowledgements

We thank T. Z. Snyder for editing and J. Altmann, J. Charrow, S. Fisher and S.Goldin-Meadow for their comments. This work was supported by the US NIMH and NIH and a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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Correspondence to Martha K. McClintock.

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Stern, K., McClintock, M. Regulation of ovulation by human pheromones. Nature 392, 177–179 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/32408

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