Chapter 9. Hearing, Vestibular Perception, Taste, and Smell
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Researchers at the National Institutes of Health have uncovered firm evidence for what many mothers have long suspected: women’s brains appear to be hard-wired to respond to the cries of a hungry infant. Researchers asked men and women to let their minds wander, then played a recording of white noise interspersed with the sounds of an infant crying. Brain scans showed that, in the women, patterns of brain activity abruptly switched to an attentive mode when they heard the infant cries, whereas the men’s brains remained in the resting state. “Previous studies have shown that, on an emotional level, men and women respond differently to the sound of an infant crying,” said study co-author Marc H. Bornstein, Ph.D., head of the Child and Family Research Section of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the institute that conducted the study. “Our findings indicate that men and women show marked differences in terms of attention as well.” The earlier studies showed that women are more likely than men to feel sympathy when they hear an infant cry, and are more likely to want to care for the infant. Their findings appear in NeuroReport. Previous studies have shown differences in patterns of brain activity between when an individual’s attention is focused and when the mind wanders. The pattern of unfocused activity is referred to as default mode, Dr. Bornstein explained. When individuals focus on something in particular, their brains disengage from the default mode and activate other brain networks.
By Scicurious In the great novel The Great Gatsby, Daisy, one of the love interests of the book, has a beautiful voice. She’s described otherwise, but you don’t really remember what she looked like, you remember how she sounded. Fitzgerald describes her voice as musical, running up and down and the scales when she talks. And you know what he’s talking about. You hear that voice in your head: light, breathy, utterly charming. You don’t really know what she looks like, but from imagining her voice, you know she is beautiful. What is it about this, or any voice, that makes it attractive? Is it the pitch? The tone? The firmness or breathiness of voice? And what is it about that voice, or any voice, that makes you know that someone is beautiful, handsome, masculine, feminine? The authors of this study wanted to see what makes a voice a VOICE. What acoustic factors make it most attractive to women and to men? To do this, they first took 10 young men, and had them rate the attractiveness of a female voice saying “good luck on your exams”. The voice actor said the phrase without any emotion using three different sound qualities: normal, breathy, and pressed (more of a hard tone). They then took the recording of this voice and modified it up and down, to create the phrase in several different pitches and formats. Specifically, they modified it upward toward what they hypothesized to mean “small body size and happiness” or downward toward what they hypothesized to mean “large body size and anger”. They showed that while increasing the pitch (higher) did not increase the attractiveness of the voice, lowering it decreased the attractiveness. And increasing the breathiness of the sentence increased attractiveness. The authors believe that this means that lowering the voice, and presumably indicating a larger body size (larger body size in general means the normal voice will be lower), reduced how attractive the men found the voice. © 2013 Scientific American
By Jill U. Adams, Urban living may be harmful to your ears. That’s the takeaway from a study that found that more than eight in 10 New Yorkers were exposed to enough noise to damage their hearing. Perhaps more surprising was that so much of the city dwellers’ noise exposure was related not to noisy occupations but rather to voluntary activities such as listening to music. Which makes it hard for me not to worry that when my 16-year-old son is sitting nearby with his earbuds in, I can hear his music. There’s a pretty good chance that he’s got the volume up too loud — loud enough to potentially damage the sensory cells deep in his ear and eventually lead to permanent hearing loss. That’s according to Christopher Chang, an ear, nose and throat doctor at Fauquier ENT Consultants in Warrenton, who sees patients every day with hearing-related issues. “What he’s hearing is way too loud, because it’s concentrated directly into the ear itself,” he says of my son, adding that the anatomy of the ear magnifies sound as it travels through the ear canal. Listening to music through earbuds or headphones is just one way that many of us are routinely exposed to excessive noise. Mowing the lawn, going to a nightclub, riding the Metro, using a power drill, working in a factory, playing in a band and riding a motorcycle are activities that can lead to hearing problems. Aging is the primary cause of hearing loss; noise is second, says Brian Fligor, who directs the diagnostic audiology program at Boston Children’s Hospital, and it’s usually the culprit when the condition affects younger people. Approximately 15 percent of American adults between the ages of 20 and 69 have high-frequency hearing loss, probably the result of noise exposure, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. © 1996-2013 The Washington Post
Link ID: 18038 - Posted: 04.15.2013
By Meghan Rosen Whether you’re rocking out to Britney Spears or soaking up Beethoven’s classics, you may be enjoying music because it stimulates a guessing game in your brain. This mental puzzling explains why humans like music, a new study suggests. By looking at activity in just one part of the brain, researchers could predict roughly how much volunteers dug a new song. When people hear a new tune they like, a clump of neurons deep within their brains bursts into excited activity, researchers report April 12 in Science. The blueberry-sized cluster of cells, called the nucleus accumbens, helps make predictions and sits smack-dab in the “reward center” of the brain — the part that floods with feel-good chemicals when people eat chocolate or have sex. The berry-sized bit acts with three other regions in the brain to judge new jams, MRI scans showed. One region looks for patterns, another compares new songs to sounds heard before, and the third checks for emotional ties. As our ears pick up the first strains of a new song, our brains hustle to make sense of the music and figure out what’s coming next, explains coauthor Valorie Salimpoor, who is now at the Baycrest Rotman Research Institute in Toronto. And when the brain’s predictions are right (or pleasantly surprising), people get a little jolt of pleasure. All four brain regions work overtime when people listen to new songs they like, report the researchers, including Robert Zatorre of the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
Published by scicurious I love salt. It's just delicious. I wrote this post while noshing on deliciously salty popcorn, after a dinner which I put salt on. I crave salt so much that my parents used to joke about getting me a salt lick. And I'm not alone. Sodium is an incredibly important part of life, which means it's also an important part of what we eat. To make sure we get enough salt, animals have evolved salt-sensing systems, and low levels (below 100 mM of NaCl) of salt are very attractive. But there IS such a thing as too much salt. High levels of salt (>300 mM NaCl) are really aversive (from personal experience, I wonder if Carrabba's restaurant has concentrations of salt in their food over 300 mM). Most animals will quickly turn up their noses at a high salt concentration. You probably know that you have classes of receptors on your tongue for taste (though they are not clustered into areas of your mouth, like front for sweetness, as previously thought). You have sweet, umami (savory), bitter, sour, and salt. In most animals, sweet and umami are always attractive, while bitter and sour are nasty (except where we have overcome the aversion to enjoy things like coffee and beer). Salt, though, is the only one that goes two ways, with low levels being attractive and high levels being aversive. Now we know how low salt works. The salt receptors that are currently known are good for detecting low salt. But high salt, that's more difficult. First of all, our aversion to high salt concentrations is not very selective. While low salt detection is limited to good old NaCl, high salt detection is non-specific, working for many salts including NaCl, but others as well (like KCl). Neurotic Physiology Copyright © 2013
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 18025 - Posted: 04.13.2013
Published by scicurious Today's post comes to you courtesy of Mary Roach (aka, the person I want to be when I grow up). I have a copy of her latest book, Gulp: adventures in the alimentary canal that I am reading for review, and a weird science connoisseur such as myself of course spends half her time in the bibliography section, wherein I located this paper. This paper may thus be taken as a pre-review of the book. Spoiler: so far, the book is FABULOUS, but should never be read while eating. Ah, goat milk. When I think of goat milk, I think of places like farmer's markets, Whole Foods, and little Heidi dancing through the alps. I'll admit to never having drunk raw goat milk (though I do LOVE goat cheese). But after having read this paper, I'm afraid that I do not WANT to try raw goat milk. Why? I'm afraid of the taste...the goaty taste...that is potentially hot, sexy goaty hormones. Hot sexy goat hormones sprayed around in hot, sexy goaty URINE. So, goat milk doesn't usually taste...well, goaty. Usually it tastes pretty much like cow milk (whole fat cow milk, that is). But sometimes, you'll get a bad batch. Nothing's WRONG with it, per se, it's still healthy and not bad, but it's...goaty. The flavor and smell are musky and weird, and not at all tasty. So obviously you want to find the source of that problem. For years, people who raise goats have pinpointed the MALE goat as the source of the issue. Male goats smell very goaty indeed, particularly during the goat mating season (the rutting season). Some of the odors they emit are so strong they can be smelled several hundred meters away. The odors are very volatile, so they will spread easily, and the idea has long been that if your male goat is around the ladies, his manly odors will get on them and in them, and thus in their milk, resulting in goaty milk (which, if the male goat is the cause, means that goaty milk is really just...MANLY). So goat farmers usually keep their male goats at a good distance from the females during the rutting season, to keep the males from getting their...manliness in the milk. Manliness is just not very tasty. Copyright © 2013
by Hal Hodson THAT fried chicken advert is about to get even more tempting. Soon it might be pumping out the mouth-watering smell of the stuff too. Tough luck if you're a veggie. The "smelling screen", invented by Haruka Matsukura at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology in Japan and colleagues, makes smells appear to come from the exact spot on any LCD screen that is displaying the image of a cup of coffee, for example. It works by continuously feeding odours from vaporising gel pellets into four air streams, one in each corner of the screen. These air streams are blown out parallel to the screen's surface by fans, and varying the strength and direction of them manoeuvres the scent to any given spot on the screen. The airflow is gentle enough that the team have been able to create the illusion that the smell is actually wafting from a digital object on-screen. The current system only pumps out one scent at a time, but Matsukura says the next stage is to incorporate a cartridge, like those for printers, which allows smells to be changed easily. The screen was shown at the IEEE Virtual Reality conference in Orlando, Florida, last week. Matsukura suggests it could also be used to enhance advertising screensMovie Camera and museum exhibits. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Andrew Grant A simple plastic shell has cloaked a three-dimensional object from sound waves for the first time. With some improvements, a similar cloak could eventually be used to reduce noise pollution and to allow ships and submarines to evade enemy detection. The experiments appear March 20 in Physical Review Letters. “This paper implements a simplified version of invisibility using well-designed but relatively simple materials,” says Steven Cummer, an electrical engineer at Duke University, who was not involved in the study. Cummer proposed the concept of a sound cloak in 2007. Scientists’ recent efforts to render objects invisible to the eye are based on the fact that our perception of the world depends on the scattering of waves. We can see objects because waves of light strike them and scatter. Similarly, the Navy can detect faraway submarines because they scatter sound waves (sonar) that hit them. So for the last several years scientists have been developing cloaks that prevent scattering by steering light or sound waves around an object. The drawback of this approach, however, is that it requires complex synthetic materials that are difficult to produce. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
Link ID: 17966 - Posted: 03.30.2013
By MARY ROACH WAGENINGEN, THE NETHERLANDS — When I told people I was traveling to Food Valley, I described it as the Silicon Valley of eating. At this cluster of universities and research facilities, nearly 15,000 scientists are dedicated to improving — or, depending on your sentiments about processed food, compromising — the quality of our meals. At the time I made the Silicon Valley comparison, I did not expect to be served actual silicone. But here I am, in the Restaurant of the Future, a cafeteria at Wageningen University where hidden cameras record diners as they make decisions about what to eat. And here it is, a bowl of rubbery white cubes the size of salad croutons. Andries van der Bilt has brought them from his lab in the brusquely named Department of Head and Neck, at the nearby University Medical Center Utrecht. “You chew them,” he said. The cubes are made of a trademarked product called Comfort Putty, more typically used in its unhardened form for taking dental impressions. Dr. Van der Bilt isn’t a dentist, however. He is an oral physiologist, and he likely knows more about chewing than anyone else in the world. He uses the cubes to quantify “masticatory performance” — how effectively a person chews. I take a cube from the bowl. If you ever, as a child, chewed on a whimsical pencil eraser in the shape of, say, an animal or a piece of fruit, then you have tasted this dish. “I’m sorry.” Dr. Van der Bilt winces. “It’s quite old.” As though fresh silicone might be better. © 2013 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 17949 - Posted: 03.26.2013
By Susan Milius Hey evolution, thanks for nothing. When a mammal embryo develops, its middle ear appears to form in a pop-and-patch way that seals one end with substandard, infection-prone tissue. “The way evolution works doesn’t always create the most perfect, engineered structure,” says Abigail Tucker, a developmental biologist at King’s College London. “Definitely, it’s made an ear that’s slightly imperfect.” The mammalian middle ear catches sound and transfers it, using three tiny bones that jiggle against the eardrum, to the inner ear chamber. Those three bones — the hammer, anvil and stirrup — are a distinctive trait that distinguishes the group from other evolutionary lineages. Research in mouse embryos finds that the middle ear begins as a pouch of tissue. Then its lining ruptures at one end and the break lets in a different kind of tissue, which forms the tiny bones of the middle ear. This intruding tissue originates from what’s called the embryo’s neural crest, a population of cells that gives rise to bone and muscle. Neural crest tissue has never been known before to create a barrier in the body. Yet as the mouse middle ear forms, this tissue creates a swath of lining that patches the rupture, Tucker and colleague Hannah Thompson, report in the March 22 Science. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
By JANE E. BRODY Noise, not age is the leading cause of hearing loss. Unless you take steps now to protect to your ears, sooner or later many of you — and your children — will have difficulty understanding even ordinary speech. Tens of millions of Americans, including 12 percent to 15 percent of school-age children, already have permanent hearing loss caused by the everyday noise that we take for granted as a fact of life. “The sad truth is that many of us are responsible for our own hearing loss,” writes Katherine Bouton in her new book, “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I — and 50 Million Other Americans — Can’t Hear You.” The cause, she explains, is “the noise we blithely subject ourselves to day after day.” While there are myriad regulations to protect people who work in noisy environments, there are relatively few governing repeated exposure to noise outside the workplace, from portable music devices, rock concerts, hair dryers, sirens, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, vacuum cleaners, car alarms and countless other sources. We live in a noisy world, and every year it seems to get noisier. Ms. Bouton notes that the noise level inside Allen Fieldhouse at the University of Kansas often exceeds that of a chain saw. After poor service, noise is the second leading complaint about restaurants. Proprietors believe that people spend more on food and drink in bustling eateries, and many have created new venues or retrofitted old ones to maximize sound levels. Copyright 2013 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 17946 - Posted: 03.25.2013
by Trevor Quirk Many smartphones claim to filter out background noise, but they've got nothing on the human brain. We can tune in to just one speaker at a noisy cocktail party with little difficulty—an ability that has been a scientific mystery since the early 1950s. Now, researchers argue that the competing noise of other partygoers is filtered out in the brain before it reaches regions involved in higher cognitive functions, such as language and attention control. Their experiments were the first to demonstrate this process. The scientists didn't do anything as social as attend a noisy party. Instead, Charles Schroeder, a psychiatrist at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, and colleagues recorded the brain activity of six people with intractable epilepsy who required brain surgery. In order to identify the part of their brains responsible for seizures, the patients underwent 1 to 4 weeks of observation through electrocorticography (ECoG), a technique that provides precise neural recordings via electrodes placed directly on the surface of the brain. Schroeder and his team, using the ECoG data, conducted their experiments during this time. The researchers showed the patients two videos simultaneously, each of a person telling a 9- to 12-second story; they were asked to concentrate on just one speaker. To determine which neural recordings corresponded to the "ignored" and "attended" speech, the team reconstructed speech patterns from the brain's electrical activity using a mathematical model. The scientists then matched the reconstructed patterns with the original patterns coming from the ignored and attended speakers. © 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
by Tim Wall Some feathered crooners may advertise their size to females by hitting the low notes. Ornithologists at the Max Planck Institute found that only bigger-bodied birds belt out the bass. The physical size of some birds may put a limit on the frequency of the birds’ songs, according to a study published in PLOS ONE. Since only a larger males hit lower notes, females may be able to use deeper voices as a reliable measure of a male’s size. Size matters to some songbird species, with females preferring larger males, so vocal limitations could affect some birds’ love lives. The songs of purple-crowned fairy-wrens, Malurus coronatus coronatus, hit a range of notes. However the study found that in some songs, larger body size related to lower-pitched singing ability. Further study will be needed to prove a relationship among body size, singing frequency and sexual success in fairy-wrens. The authors suggested that body size may be just one of many characteristics advertized by fairy-wrens songs. The authors also noted that low-frequency singing ability may have resulted from good health as the male fairy-wrens grew up. Better health may have allowed better development of singing structures in the birds’ anatomies. The same healthy conditions could have also resulted in larger size. So size and singing would be correlated, but not causally related. © 2013 Discovery Communications, LLC.
Diet pop and other artificially sweetened products may cause us to eat and drink even more calories and increase our risk for obesity and Type 2 diabetes, researchers are learning. Former McGill University researcher Dana Small specializes in the neuropsychology of flavour and feeding at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Small said there's mounting evidence that artificial sweeteners have a couple of problematic effects. Sugar substitutes such as sucralose and aspartame are more intensely sweet than sugar and may rewire taste receptors so less sweet, healthier foods aren't as enjoyable, shifting preferences to higher calorie, sweeter foods, she said. Small and some other researchers believe artificial sweeteners interfere with brain chemistry and hormones that regulate appetite and satiety. For millennia, sweet taste signalled the arrival of calories. But that's no longer the case with artificial sweeteners. "The sweet taste is no longer signalling energy and so the body adapts," Small said in an interview with CBC News. "It's no longer going to release insulin when it senses sweet because sweet now is not such a good predictor of the arrival of energy." Susan Swithers, a psychology professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., studies behavioural neuroscience. "Exposure to high-intensity sweeteners could change the way that sweet tastes are processed," she says. © CBC 2013
By SINDYA N. BHANOO Humans and many other mammals see and hear in stereo. But what about smell? “People have wondered for a long time whether smell has this component as well,” said Kenneth C. Catania, a biologist at Vanderbilt University. Now he and colleagues report in the journal Nature Communications that common moles, which are blind, have the ability and use it to swiftly locate prey. Dr. Catania created a chamber with food wells spaced around a semicircle and watched as moles detected the food. The chamber was sealed, so changes in air pressure would indicate that the animals were sniffing. Moving their noses back and forth, the moles zeroed in on the food in less than five seconds. Dr. Catania then blocked one of the moles’ nostrils with a plastic tube. When the left nostril was blocked, the moles veered off to the right, and when the right was blocked, they veered to left. Although they were still able to find the food, it took them much longer. To confirm that the moles use stereo sniffing, Dr. Catania put plastic tubes in both nostrils and then crossed them. This confused the moles, causing them to think that food to their right was actually located to their left. But their response confirmed that the moles in fact use stereo sniffing, Dr. Catania said. Previous research indicates that rats can smell in stereo, and there are suggestions that sharks and ants can, too. “The jury is still out on how many animals can do this, and that will tell us how primitive this is,” Dr. Catania said. “If only a few animals do it, then it may have evolved recently.” So can humans smell in stereo? Unlikely, he said. © 2013 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 17821 - Posted: 02.19.2013
By Rachel Ehrenberg BOSTON — For the first time, researchers have snapped pictures of mouse inner ear cells using an approach that doesn’t damage tissue or require elaborate dyes. The approach could offer a way to investigate hearing loss — the most common sensory deficit in the world — and may help guide the placement of cochlear devices or other implants. Inner ear damage and the deafness that results have long challenged scientists. The small delicate cochlea and associated parts are encased in the densest bone in the body and near crucial anatomical landmarks, including the jugular vein, carotid artery and facial nerve, which make them difficult to access. With standard anatomical imaging techniques such as MRI, the inner ear just looks like a small grey blob. “We can’t biopsy it, we can’t image it, so it’s very difficult to figure out why people are deaf,” said ear surgeon and neuroscientist Konstantina Stankovic of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston. Stankovic and her colleagues took a peek at inner ear cells using an existing technique called two-photon microscopy. This approach shoots photons at the target tissue, exciting particular molecules that then emit light. The researchers worked with mice exposed to 160 decibels of sound for two hours —levels comparable to the roaring buzz of a snowmobile or power tools. Then they removed the rodents’ inner ears, which includes the spiraled, snail-shaped cochlea and other organs. Instead of cutting into the cochlea, the researchers peered through the “round window” — a middle ear opening covered by a thin membrane that leads to the cochlea. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News BOSTON — Neuroscientists are following through on the promise of artificially enhanced bodies by creating the ability to "feel" flashes of light in invisible wavelengths, or building an entire virtual body that can be controlled via brain waves. "Things that we used to think were hoaxes or science fiction are fast becoming reality," said Todd Coleman, a bioengineering professor at the University of California at San Diego. Coleman and other researchers surveyed the rapidly developing field of neuroprosthetics in Boston this weekend at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. One advance came to light just in the past week, when researchers reported that they successfully wired up rats to sense infrared light and move toward the signals to get a reward. "This was the first attempt … not to restore a function but to augment the range of sensory experience," said Duke University neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis, the research team's leader. The project, detailed in the journal Nature Communications, involved training rats to recognize a visible light source and poke at the source with its nose to get a sip of water. Then electrodes were implanted in a region of the rats' brains that is associated with whisker-touching. The electrodes were connected to an infrared sensor on the rats' heads, which stimulated the target neurons when the rat was facing the source of an infrared beam. Then the visible lights in the test cage were replaced by infrared lights. © 2013 NBCNews.com
by Hal Hodson CAN YOU imagine feeling Earth's magnetic field on the tip of your tongue? Strangely, this is now possible, using a device that converts the tongue into a "display" for output from environmental sensors. Gershon Dublon of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology devised a small pad containing electrodes in a 5 × 5 grid. Users put the pad, which Gershon calls Tongueduino, on their tongue. When hooked up to an electronic sensor, the pad converts signals from the sensor into small pulses of electric current across the grid, which the tongue "reads" as a pattern of tingles. Dublon says the brain quickly adapts to new stimuli on the tongue and integrates them into our senses. For example, if Tongueduino is attached to a sensor that detects Earth's magnetic field, users can learn to use their tongue as a compass. "You might not have to train much," he says. "You could just put this on and start to perceive." Dublon has been testing Tongueduino on himself for the past year using a range of environmental sensors. He will now try the device out on 12 volunteers. Blair MacIntyre at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta says a wireless version of Tongueduino could prove useful in augmented reality applications that deliver information to users inconspicuously, without interfering with their vision or hearing. "There's a need for forms of awareness that aren't socially intrusive," he says. Even Google's much-publicised Project Glass will involve wearing a headset, he points out. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Emily Chung, CBC News Among musicians who learned to play an instrument before the age of seven, earlier training was linked to more connections in the area of the brain that co-ordinates both hands.Among musicians who learned to play an instrument before the age of seven, earlier training was linked to more connections in the area of the brain that co-ordinates both hands. (Jorge Silva/Reuters) Starting piano or violin lessons before the age of seven appears to cause permanent changes to the brain that are linked to better motor skills. Those changes in brain development don't occur in people who learn to play an instrument when they are older, a new study has found. "What we think is that it doesn't mean you can't be an amazing musician if you start later — just that if you start earlier it may give you some of these specific abilities that are helpful," said Virginia Penhune, a Concordia University psychologist who co-authored the research with two of her doctoral students and McGill University neuropsychologist Robert Zatorre. The Montreal researchers gave a test of motor skills to and scanned the brains of 36 musicians who were either enrolled in a university music program or performed professionally, and who had an average of 16 years experience playing musical instruments. Half of them began their musical training between age three and seven, while the other half started between the ages of eight and 18, but both groups had a comparable level of experience. The study also tested 17 non-musicians. © CBC 2013
by Lizzie Wade When a male wasp decides it's time to settle down and start a family, he releases a chemical calling card in the form of pheromones, broadcasting his location, his availability, and, most importantly, his identity. Most other kinds of insects will either ignore his signal or be repelled by it, but female wasps of his own species will buzz over and get down to business. But how and why did different pheromone blends—and the species that prefer them—evolve in the first place? A new study offers a possible solution to this long-standing evolutionary mystery, suggesting that new sex pheromones may evolve through genetic mutation before potential mates develop the ability to detect them. Scientists have long been impressed by the perfect harmony of chemical communication among insects, especially when it comes to choosing mates by detecting and responding to the sex pheromones of only their own species. But scientists were puzzled by how such a delicate system evolved. If female wasps respond to only a specific blend of pheromones, males that produce even a subtly different blend shouldn't have much luck mating and passing on their mutant genes. It seemed that in order for males to evolve new pheromones, the female insects would need some preexisting adaptation that would cause them to prefer the new chemical blend. But how could they evolve a preference for something they had never encountered and should, logic suggests, find off-putting? In essence, the question is which came first, a new species or its sex pheromone? In order to answer this question, a team of researchers in Germany turned to the Nasonia vitripennis wasp, a species famous for its propensity to lay its parasitic eggs on doomed fly pupae. When the scientists analyzed the N. vitripennis male sex pheromone, they found it contained two important chemicals, which they call RS and RR. RS also turns up in the male sex pheromones of another species of wasp, N. giraulti, whereas RR appears to be unique. © 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science.