Do you like boys or girls? It's a question we've heard directly or indirectly from pre-K up through post-work happy hours. We try to sniff out each other's preferences and make a move accordingly. Cute little mice do the same thing and a new study published in Nature this month explores what happens to sexual preference in mice when their levels of serotonin are messed with.
You've heard of serotonin before -- it's the neurotransmitter that relays signals from one area of the brain to another -- but you likely recognize it in reference to mood or, specifically, depression. Anti-depressive meds increase levels of serotonin in the brain, and they have been known to have sexual side-effects, mainly a lowered libido.
The mice in the study that were lacking serotonin courted both male and female partners -- so what?
The study, which is out of the University of Beijing, showed that male mice who were genetically engineered to lack serotonin did not reliably choose female mates over male mates. In over half the cases, the male mice lacking serotonin mounted a male first. In all cases, the serotonin-lacking male mice didn't discriminate between boy or girl mice when courting -- they sang their little mouse song of love and sniffed the genitals of both sexes. Mice who weren't genetically altered would have only courted females.
Zhou-Feng Chen of Washington University in St. Louis and co-author of the study explains:
Nobody thought that serotonin could be involved in this kind of sexual preference. We have to be cautious because this is work done in mice. I would be extremely careful to extrapolate these results into humans. We just don’t know much about this.
I'm afraid the Westboro Church is going to get a hold of this study and start spraying hoses of serotonin at any gay person they come across. Reports on the study are quick to point out that jumping to conclusions about what this research finding might mean for human sexuality is at least ignorant, at worst dangerous.
The study has undoubtedly opened up a lot of questions about serotonin, but I don't think it should yet open up any questions about human sexuality and/or preference. It doesn't seem to me that we can now assume that serotonin is the only factor that promotes or discourages male-to-male attraction. Anti-gay groups, I'm sure, will think differently. I mean, there is already an iPhone app that "cures" homosexuality ... wait 'til they get their hands on serotonin boosters.
What are your concerns or thoughts regarding the study?
Photo via woodleywonderworks/Flickr