Sniffing out danger

Mar 27, 2008

Each human nose encounters hundreds of thousands of scents in its daily travels perched front and center on our face. Some of these smells are nearly identical, so how do we learn to tell the critical ones apart?

Something bad has to happen. Then the nose becomes a very quick learner.

New research from Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine shows a single negative experience linked to an odor rapidly teaches us to identify that odor and discriminate it from similar ones.

"It's evolutionary," said Wen Li, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at the Feinberg School. "This helps us to have a very sensitive ability to detect something that is important to our survival from an ocean of environmental information. It warns us that it's dangerous and we have to pay attention to it."

The study will be published March 28 in the journal Science.

In the study, subjects were exposed to a pair of grassy smells which were nearly identical in their chemical makeup and perceptually indistinguishable. The subjects received an electrical shock when they were exposed to one scent, but not when they were exposed to the other similar one.

After being shocked, the subjects learned to discriminate between the two similar smells. This illustrates the tremendous power of the human sense of smell to learn from emotional experience. Odors that once were impossible to tell apart became easy to identify when followed by an aversive event.

Li and her colleagues also found specific changes in how odor information is stored in "primitive" olfactory regions of the brain, enhancing perceptual sensitivity for smells that have a high biological relevance.

Source: Northwestern University

Explore further: Growing a blood vessel in a week

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Mosquito sperm have 'sense of smell'

Feb 03, 2014

Vanderbilt biologists have discovered that mosquito sperm have a "sense of smell" and that some of same chemicals that the mosquito can smell cause the sperm to swim harder.

Recommended for you

Growing a blood vessel in a week

Oct 24, 2014

The technology for creating new tissues from stem cells has taken a giant leap forward. Three tablespoons of blood are all that is needed to grow a brand new blood vessel in just seven days. This is shown ...

Testing time for stem cells

Oct 24, 2014

DefiniGEN is one of the first commercial opportunities to arise from Cambridge's expertise in stem cell research. Here, we look at some of the fundamental research that enables it to supply liver and pancreatic ...

Team finds key signaling pathway in cause of preeclampsia

Oct 23, 2014

A team of researchers led by a Wayne State University School of Medicine associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology has published findings that provide novel insight into the cause of preeclampsia, the leading cause ...

Rapid test to diagnose severe sepsis

Oct 23, 2014

A new test, developed by University of British Columbia researchers, could help physicians predict within an hour if a patient will develop severe sepsis so they can begin treatment immediately.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

HeRoze
not rated yet Mar 27, 2008
This is interesting. All the extraneous stuff aside, we as humans can actually learn to distinguish 'indistinguishable' objects (smells). This makes me wonder what else we are lumping together that we can separate; Colors, sounds, feelings, tastes. It's also cool that they got to shock the participants < eg >