You might not be able to pick your fingerprint out of an inky lineup, but your brain knows what you smell like. For the first time, scientists have shown that people recognize their own scent based on their particular combination of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) proteins, molecules similar to those used by animals to choose their mates. The discovery suggests that humans can also exploit the molecules to differentiate between people.
"This is definitely new and exciting," says Frank Zufall, a neurobiologist at Saarland University's School of Medicine in Homburg, Germany, who was not involved in the work. "This type of experiment had never been done on humans before."
MHC peptides are found on the surface of almost all cells in the human body, helping inform the immune system that the cells are ours. Because a given combination of MHC peptides—called an MHC type—is unique to a person, they can help the body recognize invading pathogens and foreign cells. Over the past 2 decades, scientists have discovered that the molecules also foster communication between animals, including mice and fish. Stickleback fish, for example, choose mates with different MHC types than their own. Then, in 1995, researchers conducted the now famous "sweaty T-shirt study," which concluded that women prefer the smell of men who have different MHC genes than themselves. But no studies had shown a clear-cut physiological response to MHC proteins.
In the new work, Thomas Boehm, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg, Germany, and colleagues first tested whether women can recognize lab-made MHC proteins resembling their own. After showering, 22 women applied two different solutions to their armpits and decided which odor they liked better. The experiment was repeated two to six times for each participant. Women preferred to wear a synthetic scent containing their own MHC proteins, but only if they were nonsmokers and didn't have a cold. The study did not determine which scents women preferred on other people, but past studies on perfume have shown that individuals prefer different smells on themselves than on others.