Women whiff men in sniff proficiency

Women smell better than men, and it’s not just the perfume. As is the case for many gender differences, hormones appear to be behind the general advantage women have when it comes to their ability to detect odors.

In a series of trials, a total of 36 volunteers tried to detect either a cherry-almond or a lemon-orange smell generated by gradually decreasing concentrations of specific chemical compounds. In initial smell-threshold tests, all participants exhibited comparable abilities to detect the odors.

During tests 3 months later, however, women of reproductive age showed vast improvements in their ability to detect progressively weaker odors after only a handful of exposures to those smells, say neuroscientist Pamela Dalton of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia and her colleagues. In contrast, men failed to become more smell-sensitive, even after many exposures to the odors. The same was true for women past menopause and 8-to-10-year-old girls and boys, the scientists report in an upcoming Nature Neuroscience.

These results raise the possibility that female sex hormones act in ways that boost sensitivity to familiar odors, according to Dalton’s group. Having a nose for smells may confer reproduction-related benefits, such as helping women forge close relationships with children and mates and the ability to detect poisons in food while pregnant, the researchers theorize.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.