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Researchers record first 'pheromone images' in brains of mice

Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers are beginning to unravel how a mysterious sixth sense guides animal attraction. The scientists have made the first-ever recordings of patterns of brain activity in a mouse as it explores the sex and identity of a newly encountered animal.

The research team, led by Lawrence C. Katz, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Duke University Medical Center, recorded the firing of neurons in the accessory olfactory bulb, part of a poorly understood sensory pathway that is thought to be important in sex discrimination and social behavior in most mammals.

The results, to be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Science, show that chemical signals called pheromones trigger highly specific patterns of neural excitation in the brain. These pheromone images provide vital information about the sexual receptiveness of females and the dominance hierarchy in males, among other things, said Katz.

Mice, which live in the darkness in the wild, can readily identify each other on the basis of a pheromonal image rather than a visual image, said Katz.

Both wild and domestic animals, such as dogs and cats, collect pheromone signals through the flehmen response, in which the upper lip curls back during exploration of the oral and anogenital areas of other animals during social encounters. These pheromone signals are collected by the vomeronasal organ (VNO), a hollow tube in the nasal cavity. Sensory neurons lining the VNO, in turn, stimulate neurons in the accessory olfactory bulb, a part of the central nervous system. Finally, signals are sent to the amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for basic drives, such as fear, aggression, mating behavior and maternal instincts.

The information contained in pheromone signals is key to survival and reproduction, said Katz. Male mice establish dominance hierarchies, so th
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Contact: Jim Keeley
keeleyj@hhmi.org
301-215-8858
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
13-Feb-2003


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