Small-brained female seeks alpha male

A new study suggests that dominant male mice cause female mice to grow brain cells.

Published July 2, 2007 10:45PM (EDT)

Here's an irksome example, by way of Canada's Calgary Herald, of how preliminary scientific findings can be spun prematurely. Today, a headline queries: "Do hunky men make women smarter?" The story's author then waxes poetic about the alpha male: "It's not just the muscles, or the confidence, or the chiseled cheekbones. Nor is it the flashy sportscar or the charming arrogance. No, the charms of the alpha male -- the guy who stands out above lesser mortals -- may actually help women become smarter."

That is a pretty creative reframing of scientific findings -- it's neuroscience meets Nora Roberts! Researchers from the University of Calgary's Hotchkiss Brain Institute found that when female mice are exposed to pheromones belonging to dominant male mice, their brain cell production is given a boost. Thanks to the vivid imagery in the author's lead, I'm picturing Stuart Little behind the wheel of a red sports car, clad in leather with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. (And I need only mention Donald Trump to illustrate the trouble of equating dominance in humans with chiseled cheekbones and, particularly, "charming arrogance.")

Those additional brain cells help lead the female mice to other "hunky" male mice, thereby improving their offspring's chances of survival. "This is turning brain cells on," said Dr. Samuel Weiss, director of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute. "These hormones may be natural boosters in brain cell production; they may be used to boost cell production."

If it turns out the brain-cell boost experienced by mice is also experienced by humans, it could lead to new treatments for brain damage. But these preliminary findings don't show that cell growth necessarily translates to greater human intelligence. (Though, a higher density of gray matter in certain parts of the brain does correlate with higher intelligence.) Most basically, it seems a leap to assume the same neurological process that causes a rodent to have improved reproductive radar necessarily causes superior intelligence in humans.

I was primed to probe the HBI researchers on the particulars of mouse-on-mouse action (especially how their research quantifies dominance in mice), but sadly I haven't been able to get them on the phone. If I hear back, I'll keep you all posted.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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