In a new study published today in the scientific journal eLife, The researchers from Prof. Noam Sobel’s laboratory at the Weizmann Institute showed that women who suffer from recurrent and unexplained miscarriages perceive men’s body odors differently from other women. These findings may point in new directions in finding the causes of recurrent miscarriages and their prevention.
Not all fertilization ends in pregnancy and childbirth. In fact, an incredible rate of about 50% of fertilizations and about 15% of documented pregnancies add up to fetal loss. Scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science have recently discovered a surprising link between abortion and the sense of smell. In a new study published today in the scientific journal eLife, The researchers from Prof. Noam Sobel’s laboratory showed that women who suffer from recurrent and unexplained miscarriages perceive men’s body odors differently from other women. These findings may point in new directions in finding the causes of recurrent miscarriages and their prevention.
The sense of smell plays a key role in the courtship and reproduction of mammals. In 1959, British zoologist Hilda Bruce discovered that rodent females tend to abort their embryos in response to the body odor of a foreign male. Since its initial discovery, the “Bruce effect” has also been detected in other mammalian species including a particular species of monkey. The reason for the Bruce effect is not fully known, but the common evolutionary explanation is that the female “chooses” to end her pregnancy, after realizing that a new – and more capable – male has come to the neighborhood than the male who violated her. In humans, too, there is evidence of olfactory involvement in gender relations. Therefore, Prof. Sobel’s laboratory was asked to examine whether a similar effect is possible in women suffering from unexplained recurrent miscarriages.
A necessary condition for the existence of a Bruce effect in rodents, is of course the ability of the female to remember the body odor of the male who violated it. To test this in humans, the researchers presented women who underwent unexplained miscarriages with odors extracted from their partners’ T-shirts alongside odors extracted from foreign men’s shirts. The researchers found that these women were able to identify their partner by body odor, while women in the control group were unable to do so; Aside from this ability, these women had a good sense of smell but little of the women in the control group. “In fact, their ability to detect their partner’s odor was so amazing that some of them told us ‘oh, my husband here’ after being exposed to the odor we presented to them – without even knowing what they smelled,” says Reut Weissgross, who led the study. Dr. Liron Rosenkranz and Dr. Tali Weiss. “It has not happened, not once, in the control group.”
Further tests have revealed that these women are not only better at recognizing their partner’s odor, but that they perceive men’s body odor differently than the women in the control group. When asked to rate men’s body odors according to various measures, from standard measures of pleasantness and intensity to variables such as sexual attraction or fertility, women with recurrent miscarriages were unique in describing and rating the odors, and their perception of odor differed significantly from the control group. Moreover, MRI scans performed on these women revealed that their olfactory bulbs – the first stop on the neural pathway from the nose to the brain – are smaller on average. In addition, fMRI scans have shown an increased response to men’s body odors in their hypothalamus, the brain region responsible for hormonal regulation, including during pregnancy, which plays a key role in the Bruce effect in rodents.
“Doctors may not find an explanation for these abortions because they are looking in the wrong place – examining the reproductive system, where the address may be the nervous system, and in particular the olfactory areas of the brain,” says Weissgross. Prof. Sobel adds: “It is important to note that the correlation we found does not yet indicate causality. However, the findings do indicate a new research direction that may prove to be most significant for understanding the causes of recurrent miscarriages.”
The study was conducted in collaboration with Prof. Howard Karp, head of the recurrent abortion clinic at Sheba Medical Center – Tel Hashomer.
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