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Love is in the air: the science behind pheromones

It's that time of year!

You've heard about these before. Pheromones are basically chemical messengers our bodies release that can cast a love spell -- no love potions required, people. Our bodies do all the work for us when it comes to finding a mate. Well, not all the work, but at least the biological part.

But contrary to popular belief, pheromones are not just any old smells. In animals, they are processed through an entirely different organ called the vomeronasal organ. From there, the scent message is sent (not scent!) for further processing to the hypothalamus -- a small (yet mighty) portion of the brain that is directly linked to our emotions, which is where sex drive comes in.

So we know that animals communicate via pheromones, but what about humans? Dr. Martha McKlintock was one of the pioneers of pheromone research when she detected in 1998 that women who live together synchronize menstrual cycles. From McKlintock's initial findings, studies have been conducted using PET brain scanning to chart brain activity during the pheromone smelling process. Scientists found that pheromones activate the hypothalamus, which is normally not activated by other odors.

While it's a reasonable idea to think that altering our pheromone levels will make us more sexually attractive, there's still a lot to be discovered. Perfume companies have tried to capitalize on this principle, but marketing has a lot to do with confidence, and the placebo effect is a powerful one.

But pheromones can be harnessed for good. Pherin Pharmaceuticals, for example, is developing pheromone therapy. They hope the synthetic pheromones they create help reduce anxiety and premenstrual syndrome in women.

Pheromone research is still a field that requires a deep dive. But in the meantime, be sure to appreciate your natural odors. They may be doing you some good!

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