Nav: Home

Do you smell what I smell?

April 30, 2019

PHILADELPHIA (April 30, 2019) - Several years ago the internet was captivated by the enigma of "the dress" - specifically, was the dress black and blue, or was it white and gold? No matter what you saw, the viral debate served to highlight that humans differ remarkably in how we each perceive our personal sensory world.

While even vision scientists disagree about why people saw the dress so differently, a new study from the Monell Center and collaborating institutions sheds light on understanding the extensive individual differences in how we sense odors. By showing that small changes in a single olfactory receptor gene can affect how strong and pleasant a person finds an odor, the findings expand understanding of how olfactory receptors in the nose encode information about the properties of odors even before that information reaches the brain.

"By taking advantage of the natural variation in the olfactory receptor family, we can gain crucial insight into how the olfactory system works and how differences in this system may impact food choice, nutritional health, and overall well-being," said study lead author Casey Trimmer, PhD, who was a Monell postdoctoral fellow when the research was conducted.

Humans have about 400 different types of specialized sensor proteins, known as olfactory receptors, in their noses. One odor molecule can activate several different olfactory receptors, while any given receptor can be activated by several different odor molecules. In a process that remains to be decrypted, the olfactory system somehow interprets these receptor activation patterns to recognize the presence, quality (does it smell like cherry or smoke?) and intensity of millions, maybe even trillions, of different smells.

"We still know very little about how olfactory receptors translate information from an odor molecule into the perception of an odor's quality, intensity, and pleasantness," said Monell senior author Joel Mainland, PhD, an olfactory neurobiologist. "By examining how variation in an olfactory receptor gene changes odor perception, we can begin to understand the function of each receptor. This in turn will help us learn how the receptors work together so that we can decipher the olfactory code and digitize olfaction."

Small differences in olfactory receptor genes, which are extremely common in humans, can affect the way each receptor functions. These genetic differences mean that when two people smell the same molecule, one person may detect a floral odor while another smells nothing at all.

In the current study, published online in advance of print in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciencez, the researchers examined this phenomenon on a large scale by asking 332 people to rate the perceived intensity (strength) and pleasantness of nearly 70 odors. Many of the odors used are common components of food flavor, providing real-world relevance to the study.

The scientists also obtained DNA samples from the subjects and used high-throughput sequencing technology to identify differences in the DNA of over 400 olfactory receptor genes from each subject. Finally, using sophisticated mathematical models, they asked if and how differences in each gene affected odor perception.

"We used people's genes to identify who has a broken form of a given receptor and compared their odor perception to that of individuals having the more functional version of that receptor. Is the odor less strong? Is it more pleasant? Is it both?" said Trimmer.

The results were surprising: A change in a single receptor was often sufficient to affect a person's odor perception.

"Because most odors activate several receptors, many scientists thought that losing one receptor wouldn't make a difference in how we perceive that odor. Instead, our work shows that is not the case and changes to a single receptor can make a big difference in how you perceive an odor," said Mainland.

The findings also revealed that a receptor's functionality frequently was tied to changes in an odor's perceived strength. For example, people with a less-functional version of an olfactory receptor known as OR11A1 found the odor molecule 2-ethylfenchol to be less intense than did individuals with a better-functioning version of this receptor.

"The odor associated with 2-ethylfenchol is part of the reason root vegetables like beets have an earthy flavor, so differences in the OR11A1 receptor may explain why some people describe beets as tasting strongly like dirt," said Trimmer.

Moving forward, the researchers will seek to broaden their understanding of the olfactory system by using more sophisticated mathematical models to examine the contribution of multiple receptors to odor perception.
-end-
Trimmer currently is at Firmenich, Inc. Also contributing to the researcher were Nicolle Murphy and Lindsey Snyder from Monell; Andreas Keller and Leslie Vosshall from The Rockefeller University; and, Hiroaki Matsunami, Jason Willer, Nicholas Katsanis, and Maira Nagai from the Duke University Medical Center. Research reported in the publication was supported by grants from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (DC011373, DC013339, DC000014, DC014202, DC005782, DC012095, DC014423, and DC011735) and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (TR000043) of the National Institutes of Health. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. Additional funding was supplied by grant 2017/00726-2 from the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).

Paper doi: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1804106115

The Monell Chemical Senses Center is an independent nonprofit basic research institute based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1968, Monell builds on its legacy of advancing scientific understanding of the mechanisms and functions of taste and smell to benefit human health and well-being. Using an interdisciplinary approach, scientists collaborate in the programmatic areas of sensation and perception; neuroscience and molecular biology; environmental and occupational health; nutrition and appetite; health and well-being; development, aging and regeneration; and chemical ecology and communication. For more information about Monell, visit http://www.monell.org.

Monell Chemical Senses Center

Related Perception Articles:

Approaching the perception of touch in the brain
More than ten percent of the cerebral cortex are involved in processing information about our sense of touch -- a larger area than previously thought.
Musical perception: nature or nurture?
This is the subject of the research by Juan Manuel Toro (ICREA) and Carlota Pagès Portabella, researchers at the Center for Brain and Cognition, published in the journal Psychophysiology as part of a H2020 project being carried out with Fundació Bial to understand the neuronal bases of musical cognition.
Perception of musical pitch varies across cultures
Unlike US residents, people in a remote area of the Bolivian rain forest usually do not perceive the similarities between two versions of the same note played at different registers, an octave apart.
Olfactory and auditory stimuli change the perception of our body
A pioneering investigation developed by the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) alongside the University of Sussex and University College London, shows that olfactory stimuli combined with auditory stimuli can change our perception of our body.
How brain rhythms organize our visual perception
Imagine that you are watching a crowded hang-gliding competition, keeping track of a red and orange glider's skillful movements.
Traumas change perception in the long term
People with maltreatment experiences in their childhood have a changed perception of social stimuli later as adults.
BrainHealth researchers study the neurochemistry of social perception
Cues signaling trust and dominance are crucial for social life.
How expectation influences perception
MIT neuroscientists have identified distinctive patterns of neural activity that encode prior beliefs and help the brain make sense of uncertain signals coming from the outside world.
How grunting influences perception in tennis
Grunting noises in tennis influence the prediction of ball flight.
The brain's imperfect execution of mathematically optimal perception
Human perception is based on mathematically optimal principles, but the brain implements those principles imperfectly, suggests new research by Elina Stengård and Ronald van den Berg of the University of Uppsala, Sweden.
More Perception News and Perception Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

In & Out Of Love
We think of love as a mysterious, unknowable force. Something that happens to us. But what if we could control it? This hour, TED speakers on whether we can decide to fall in — and out of — love. Guests include writer Mandy Len Catron, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, musician Dessa, One Love CEO Katie Hood, and psychologist Guy Winch.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#542 Climate Doomsday
Have you heard? Climate change. We did it. And it's bad. It's going to be worse. We are already suffering the effects of it in many ways. How should we TALK about the dangers we are facing, though? Should we get people good and scared? Or give them hope? Or both? Host Bethany Brookshire talks with David Wallace-Wells and Sheril Kirschenbaum to find out. This episode is hosted by Bethany Brookshire, science writer from Science News. Related links: Why Climate Disasters Might Not Boost Public Engagement on Climate Change on The New York Times by Andrew Revkin The other kind...
Now Playing: Radiolab

An Announcement from Radiolab