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NEWS 68 FEBRUARY 2002
In the 1990’s zoologist Claus Wedekind from the University of Bern gave 44 men each a Tshirt and asked them to wear it for two nights in a row, without using any perfumed cosmetics or soaps. A group of 49 volunteer women were then asked to smell the T-shirts and rate their odorific attractiveness. As he had expected from similar studies of rodents, it was found that the women were most attracted to the smells of men whose major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes (genes that encode various components of the immune system) were different from their own. It is known that the more varied the MHC genes are in an individual, the stronger their immune system, and so the offspring of partners with significantly different MHC genes have a greater chance of survival. There was one significant subgroup among the women, however. Those who were on the contraceptive pill preferred the odour of men whose MHC genes were similar to their own. The previous experiments on mice had shown that when pregnant, mice also preferred the odour of other mice with similar MHC genes, presumably because during pregnancy there is a biological advantage in being close to family members who will have a greater investment in the survival of the offspring. Since the contraceptive pill mimics pregnancy, it appears to produce the same tendency. [Proceedings of the Royal Society B 260, 245 - 249 (1995)]. A recent study has further shown that women who are not on the contraceptive pill have a heightened sense of smell around ovulation, a phenomenon that seems to disappear when women take the pill (Human Reproduction, Vol. 16, No. 11, 2288-2294, November 2001). Finally more recent research by Wedekind suggests that in our choice of perfumes, far from seeking scents that mask our own, we may be attracted to those that enhance our own smells, and our choice of favourite perfumes may reflect our MHC gene make-up, acting to alert possible mates to our MHC gene status [Behavioural Ecology 12, 140 - 149 (2001)].
ECHINACEA & COMMON COLD
In a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 80 patients with common cold, the herb Echinacea purpura was found to significantly reduce the number of days of illness compared to the placebo group (Arzneimittel Forschung 2201, 51(7)563-8).