Human fear-omones: From molecules to behavior

Summary

Millennia-old beliefs of humans being “tiny smellers” have long stalled scientific progress to debunk this myth. Only recently, impactful reviews cited empirical studies highlighting the excellent smell skills humans share with other animals, including social communication. Similarly, the pressing quest for human pheromones was listed in Science’s Top 125 critical knowledge gaps spanning the sciences. Even though recent studies have elucidated human body odors’ potential in conveying personal identity, gender, sickness, and emotions, research on human pheromones has currently reached an impasse, due to (i) outdated pheromone definitions, and not knowing (ii) the molecules comprising the pheromone, and (iii) whether effects generalize beyond Western Caucasians—a major problem in scientific research.

In the wake of recent developments in theory and chemical analytical technology, substantial progress can be made now, by (I) updating the pheromone definition, allowing (II) an unprecedented systematic multidisciplinary approach (i.e., combining pre-validated chemical analysis techniques and behavioral experiments) toward (III) unraveling a species-wide human capacity to communicate fear, from a sender’s molecules to a receiver’s behavior. Notably, fear-omones should have adaptive significance for all humans, yet previous research—using mostly male senders and female receivers—based its strong support on Western Caucasians only, neglecting other gender sender-receiver pairs and a significant portion of the world population (East Asians) carrying a single gene-variant (ABCC11-allele AA) that may hinder global fear-omone communication.

Using pre-validated methods and techniques, I propose four time-intensive studies that complete the recommended steps for pheromone identification: (1) performing a repeatable behavioral experiment (bioassay) to determine whether fear-omone communication extends to individuals having a crucial ABCC11-gene variant (Study 1) and in different gender pairs (Study 2); (2) chemically identifying key fear-omone compounds mapped on bioassay-observed behavior (Study 3); and (3) chemically counteracting these key fear-omone compounds from eliciting their undesired effects to enhance well-being (Study 4).

Details

Project number

016.Veni.195.116

Main applicant

Dr. J.H.B. de Groot PhD

Affiliated with

University of Pennsylvania, Perelman School of Medicine, Gottfried Laboratory

Duration

01/01/2019 to 28/02/2022