Researchers say that most smells hover about 10 inches off the ground, placing the human nose at a disadvantage among those of most other mammals. Nonetheless, when smells do reach the neurons inside the nose, the human brain can distinguish from among the thousands of chemicals that make up odors, and scientists are beginning to understand just how the process works.
In the last decade, the nose has been revealed as the site of a large family of sensory neurons, each of which specializes in a particular smell. Since this discovery, researchers have studied the olfactory system in rodents, following the axons that extend from neurons into the rodent brain. Their research shows that the axons from neurons with receptors for the same odor molecule congregate in the one or two glomeruli that are reserved for those axons. Glomeruli, which contain only axon terminals, are specialized structures in the olfactory bulb; the rodent brain has 2000 of them. By studying "odor maps" that show activity in certain glomeruli in response to different smells, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Lawrence C. Katz of Duke University has found that each odor results in a pattern or "fingerprint," which humans and other mammals seem to use to distinguish from among different smells.
"We needed a way to 'see' which specific glomeruli were activated by different odorants," said Katz, a professor of neurobiology at Duke. "We acco