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MHC-correlated odour preferences in humans and the use of oral contraceptives

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Craig Roberts, Emeritus Professor Morris Gosling, Emerita Professor Marion Petrie

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Abstract

Previous studies in animals and humans show that genes in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) influence individual odours and that females often prefer odour of MHC-dissimilar males, perhaps to increase offspring heterozygosity or reduce inbreeding. Women using oral hormonal contraceptives have been reported to have the opposite preference, raising the possibility that oral contraceptives alter female preference towards MHC-similarity, with possible fertility costs. Here we test directly whether contraceptive pill use alters odour preferences using a longitudinal design in which women were tested before and after initiating pill use; a control group of non-users were tested with a comparable interval between test sessions. In contrast to some previous studies, there was no significant difference in ratings between odours of MHC-dissimilar and similar men amongst women during the follicular cycle phase. However, single women preferred odours of MHC-similar men while women in relationships preferred odours of MHC-dissimilar men, a result consistent with studies in other species suggesting that paired females may seek to improve offspring quality through extra-pair partnerships. Across tests, we found a significant preference shift towards MHC-similarity associated with pill use, which was not evident in the control group. If odour plays a role in human mate choice, our results suggest that contraceptive pill use could disrupt disassortative mate preferences.


Publication metadata

Author(s): Roberts SC, Gosling LM, Carter V, Petrie M

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Year: 2008

Volume: 275

Issue: 1652

Pages: 2715-2722

ISSN (print): 0962-8452

ISSN (electronic): 1471-2954

Publisher: The Royal Society Publishing

URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2008.0825

DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0825


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