The vomeronasal system mediates sick conspecific avoidance. Curr. Biol. 2015 Jan;25(2):251-5. S0960-9822(14)01555-3. 10.1016/j.cub.2014.11.061. 13-01-2015
Although sociability offers many advantages, a major drawback is the increased risk of exposure to contagious pathogens, like parasites, viruses, or bacteria. Social species have evolved various behavioral strategies reducing the probability of pathogen exposure. In rodents, sick conspecific avoidance can be induced by olfactory cues emitted by parasitized or infected conspecifics. The neural circuits involved in this behavior remain largely unknown. We observed that olfactory cues present in bodily products of mice in an acute inflammatory state or infected with a viral pathogen are aversive to conspecifics. We found that these chemical signals trigger neural activity in the vomeronasal system, an olfactory subsystem controlling various innate behaviors. Supporting the functional relevance of these observations, we show that preference toward healthy individuals is abolished in mice with impaired vomeronasal function. These findings reveal a novel function played by the vomeronasal system.
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