Female chemical signals underlie the advertising of sexual receptivity and fertility. Whether the body odor of a pregnant woman also has a signaling function with respect to male behavior is yet to be conclusively established. This study examines how the body odors of ovulating and pregnant women differentially affect the behavior of heterosexual men. Body odor samples were collected from 5 pregnant women and 5 matched controls during ovulation. In a double-blind functional magnetic resonance imaging design, 18 heterosexual men were exposed to female body odors during ovulation (OV) and pregnancy (PRG) while being required to indicate the attractiveness of concurrently presented female portrait images. The participants were also required to indicate whether they assumed a depicted woman was pregnant. While neither OV nor PRG altered the perceived attractiveness of a presented face, the men tended to identify the women as pregnant while exposed to a PRG body odor. On the neural level, OV activated a network of the frontotemporal and limbic regions, while PRG activated the superior medial frontal gyrus. The results suggest that the detection of sexual availability activates the male brain regions associated with face processing and reward/motivation, whereas sensing pregnancy activates a region responsible for empathy and prosocial behavior. Thus, the female body odor during pregnancy likely helps foster circumstances conducive to the future care of offspring while the body odor advertising sexual availability promotes mating behavior. The brains of heterosexual men may be capable of unconsciously discriminating between these two types of olfactory stimuli.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience