Something smells fishy? Need to smell the coffee? According to a new study by Weizmann Institute scientists, receptors in the nose’s smelling organ have more to do with how people perceive smells than previously thought.
A team headed by Prof. Noam Sobel of the Weizmann Institute’s Neurobiology Department set out to search for the principle of organization for smell. The researchers found a correlation between the response of certain nerves to particular scents and the pleasantness of those scents. Based on this correlation, the researchers could tell by measuring the nerve responses whether a subject found a smell pleasant or unpleasant.
Sobel and his team thought that smell receptors in the nose – of which there are some 400 subtypes – could be arranged on the nasal membrane according to a pleasantness scale. This hypothesis goes against the conventional view, which claims that the various smell receptors are mixed — distributed evenly, but randomly, around the membrane.
In the experiment, the researchers inserted electrodes into the nasal passages of volunteers and measured the nerves’ responses to different smells in various sites.
“We uncovered a clear correlation between the pattern of nerve reaction to various smells and the pleasantness of those smells. As in sight and hearing, the receptors for our sense of smell are spatially organized in a way that reflects the nature of the sensory experience,” says Sobel.
Moreover, the findings confirm the idea that our experience of smells as nice or nasty is hardwired into our physiology, and not purely the result of individual preference.
The findings were published in Nature Neuroscience journal.