Symphony of scents: Why do flowers smell different from rotting fish?

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Credit: Shayla Fish/Quanta

In the deep recesses of the nose are millions of sensory neurons that, along with our eyes and ears, help conjure the world around us. When stimulated by a chemical with a smell, or an odorant, they send nerve impulses to thousands of clusters of neurons in the glomeruli, which make up the olfactory bulb, the brain’s smell center.

The authors of the new study sought to identify distinguishing features involved in forming the representation of odors in the brain. To do so, they used a technique called optogenetics to activate glomeruli in mice. Optogenetics uses light to stimulate specific neurons in the brain. And it can help determine the function of particular brain regions.

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They found that the sequence of glomerular activation was crucial to odor perception. When they changed which glomerulus was activated first, the mice demonstrated a 30 percent drop in the ability to sense the correct odor.

[Neuroscientist Dmitry] Rinberg likens smell perception to the melody of a song: The notes—in this case, representing activated glomeruli—are important. But without the right timing, the song, or the perceptual experience, falls apart. Changing the seventh note of a melody might be unnoticeable. Swapping the first two might result in a new tune altogether. When we smell, it is not only about which glomeruli are activated but also what time sequence they follow.

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