Senior author Scott D. Pletcher, a professor at the University of Michigan Medical School and research professor at the University of Michigan Geriatrics Center, said male fruit flies that perceived sexual pheromones of their female counterparts — without the opportunity to mate — experienced rapid decreases in fat stores, resistance to starvation and more stress. The sexually frustrated flies lived shorter lives, Pletcher said.
However, the study, published in the journal Science, found mating partially reversed the negative effects on health and aging.
“Our findings give us a better understanding about how sensory perception and physiological state are integrated in the brain to affect long-term health and lifespan,” Pletcher said in a statement.
“The cutting-edge genetics and neurobiology used in this research suggests to us that for fruit flies at least, it may not be a myth that sexual frustration is a health issue. Expecting sex without any sexual reward was detrimental to their health and cut their lives short.”
The scientists used sensory manipulations to give the common male fruit fly, the perception that they were in a sexually rich environment by exposing them to genetically engineered males that produced female pheromones.
A pheromone is a chemical an animal produces that changes the behavior of another animal of the same species. The researchers were also able to manipulate the specific neurons responsible for pheromone perception as well as parts of the brain linked to sexual reward.
“These data might provide the first direct evidence that aging and physiology are influenced by how the brain processes expectations and rewards,” Pletcher said. “In this case, sexual rewards specifically promoted healthy aging.”