Brains are able to adjust automatically to the demands of distinguishing between small differences in smell, new research at the University of Chicago shows.
The research, which was conducted on rats, suggests that the human brain may be more adept at distinguishing smells than previously thought. The work comes from studies in the laboratory of Leslie Kay, Assistant Professor in Psychology at the University, who is looking at the ways animals perceive sensory stimuli by focusing on the neural basis of olfactory perception and how context and experience influence it.
The research demonstrates the importance of smell as a means for people to gather information from their environment. Smell is often an undervalued sense because people are more aware of the visual aspects of their perceptions, the researchers said.
Those visual distractions lead people to ignore their ability to detect smells, something the brain is apparently well equipped to do, according to Kay and Jennifer Beshel, a graduate student at the University, who presented results of her dissertation research in the talk, "Olfactory bulb gamma oscillations are dynamically altered to adjust to task demands," at the annual meeting of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences in Sarasota, Florida.
The olfactory bulb is the portion of the brain that processes scent information. Previous studies have looked at the how the olfactory bulb works in regulating smell and also examined behavior related to smell in mammals and other animals. "This is the first study to look at the ways in which mammals respond to challenges of distinguishing smells by studying actual activity in the olfactory bulb while varying the difficulty of the discrimination," Kay said.
For the study, the researchers attached electrodes to the brains of four rats and trained them to distinguish different odors. The electrodes followed the oscillations of the cells in the olfactory
Contact: William Harms
University of Chicago