Structure and function of the vomeronasal system: an update

Prog Neurobiol. 2003 Jun;70(3):245-318. doi: 10.1016/s0301-0082(03)00103-5.


Several developments during the past 15 years have profoundly affected our understanding of the vomeronasal system (VNS) of vertebrates. In the mid 1990s, the vomeronasal epithelium of mammals was found to contain two populations of receptor cells, based on their expression of G-proteins. These two populations of neurons were subsequently found to project their axons to different parts of the accessory olfactory bulb (AOB), forming the basis of segregated pathways with possibly heterogeneous functions. A related discovery was the cloning of members of at least two gene families of putative vomeronasal G-protein-coupled receptors (GPRs) in the vomeronasal epithelium. Ligand binding to these receptors was found to activate a phospholipase C (PLC)-dependent signal transduction pathway that primarily involves an increase in intracellular inositol-tris-phosphate and intracellular calcium. In contrast to what was previously believed, neuron replacement in the vomeronasal epithelium appears to occur through a process of vertical migration in most mammals. New anatomical studies of the central pathways of the olfactory and vomeronasal systems indicated that these two systems converge on neurons in the telencephalon, providing an anatomical substrate for functional interactions. Combined anatomical, physiological and behavioral studies in mice provided new information that furthered our understanding of one of the most striking pheromonal phenomena, the Bruce effect. Finally, contrary to prior observations, new anatomical studies indicated that a vomeronasal organ (VNO) was present in human adults and reports were published indicating that this system might be functional. These latter observations are still controversial and require confirmation from independent laboratories.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aggression
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Epithelium / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Neural Pathways / anatomy & histology
  • Neural Pathways / metabolism
  • Pheromones / physiology
  • Receptors, Odorant / classification
  • Receptors, Odorant / genetics
  • Receptors, Odorant / physiology*
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*
  • Species Specificity
  • Vomeronasal Organ* / cytology
  • Vomeronasal Organ* / growth & development
  • Vomeronasal Organ* / physiology


  • Pheromones
  • Receptors, Odorant