Berkeley -- University of California, Berkeley, graduate student Allen Liu last Friday donned coveralls, a blindfold, earplugs and gloves, then got down on all fours and sniffed out a 33-foot chocolate trail through the grass.
This was no fraternity initiation, but part of an experiment to find out whether mammals compare information coming from their two nostrils in order to aid scent-tracking performance, much like they compare information from their ears in order to locate a sound.
In a paper appearing this week in the advance online edition of Nature Neuroscience, UC Berkeley researchers report conclusive evidence from these experiments that humans do indeed gain a performance advantage from cross-nostril comparisons. They also found that humans can scent-track, and that, with training, they can improve their accuracy significantly while nearly doubling their speed along the scent trail.
In one experiment, the authors found that while volunteers with one nostril blocked could still track a scent - in this experiment, essence of chocolate - volunteers with two open nostrils tracked a scent quicker and with fewer deviations from the trail. "We were asking the question, 'Are two nostrils better than one"'" said lead author Jess Porter, a graduate student in biophysics at UC Berkeley. "The answer is yes."
Apparently, according to Porter and her colleagues, the mammalian brain compares smells between nostrils to tell where an odor is coming from in the same way that the brain compares the sounds entering a person's two ears to locate a source. Until now, many researchers thought this was unlikely because a mammal's nostrils, in a mouse, for example, are too close together to receive distinctly different smells.
"The human brain compares information from two 'noses' to turn smell information into spatial information," said Noam Sobel, associate professor of neuroscience and psychology and member of the program in
Contact: Robert Sanders
University of California - Berkeley