May 31, 2012

The smell of age

PLoS ONE 7(5): e38110. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0038110

The Smell of Age: Perception and Discrimination of Body Odors of Different Ages

Susanna Mitro et al.

Our natural body odor goes through several stages of age-dependent changes in chemical composition as we grow older. Similar changes have been reported for several animal species and are thought to facilitate age discrimination of an individual based on body odors, alone. We sought to determine whether humans are able to discriminate between body odor of humans of different ages. Body odors were sampled from three distinct age groups: Young (20–30 years old), Middle-age (45–55), and Old-age (75–95) individuals. Perceptual ratings and age discrimination performance were assessed in 41 young participants. There were significant differences in ratings of both intensity and pleasantness, where body odors from the Old-age group were rated as less intense and less unpleasant than body odors originating from Young and Middle-age donors. Participants were able to discriminate between age categories, with body odor from Old-age donors mediating the effect also after removing variance explained by intensity differences. Similarly, participants were able to correctly assign age labels to body odors originating from Old-age donors but not to body odors originating from other age groups. This experiment suggests that, akin to other animals, humans are able to discriminate age based on body odor alone and that this effect is mediated mainly by body odors emitted by individuals of old age.


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