Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


How the nose knows a rose - or a mate


If you sniff a rose this Valentine’s Day, your brain will recognize almost a hundred different molecules that collectively give the flower its heady scent-but how? Scientists are now discovering how the brain identifies odors and their mysterious counterparts, the pheromones. New research, to be presented today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting and forthcoming in the journal, Science, explains how the mouse brain is exquisitely tuned to recognize another mouse’s pheromone cocktail.

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 accomplished this by using a technique called ’optical imaging of intrinsic signals,’ which allowed us to take a picture of the bulb when it was being stimulated by a particular odor, and when it wasn’t."

While the human brain’s ability to distinguish different odors may be impressive, many mammalian brains can also identify an altogether different type of "smell." Mammals ranging from mice to elephants produce substances called pheromones, which communicate information about social status and when an individual is ready to reproduce. These signals are somehow picked up through the "accessory" olfactory system, which is separate from the "main" olfactory system that allows us to appreciate, for example, the scent of a rose bouquet.

Scientists have understood little about the accessory olfactory system, but a new mouse study by Katz and his colleagues, forthcoming in Science, should change that. It reveals that pheromone-detecting neurons in this system are carefully "tuned" to pick up on another mouse’s sex and genetic makeup. This type of smelling may thus be a handy way for certain mammals to identify potential mates (and may also help mice get around the fact that they look pretty much alike). These findings may also open the way to a better understanding of how animals communicate dominance, mating receptivity, and individuality, according to Katz and his coauthors. The researchers implanted three microelectrodes into a specific region of the mouse’s brain where they would record the activity of individual neurons responding to different pheromones. Then they added to the cage a second mouse, which was lightly anaesthetized, so that the test mouse could get close for a sniff. The test mouse’s neurons each had highly selective responses to the pheromones of the introduced mouse, depending on the introduced mouse’s genetic strain and sex. Interestingly, the face seemed to be the most important source of pheromones.

Other researchers are exploring how the axons from the sensory neurons negotiate "an extremely hostile environment" to make their way into the brain, according to Charles Greer, professor of neuroscience in the Department of Neurosurgery and Section of Neurobiology at Yale University School of Medicine. He points out that unlike the axons of any other neurons, axons from the sensory neurons travel in bundles that are wrapped in tentacle-like glial processes, offering a possible model for encouraging the growth of neurons in areas that have been damaged following spinal cord injury. "Think of the glial cells as a person with their arms wrapped around the axons," Greer said. "We’ve taken these glial cells, and have begun to make spinal cord cells functionally enervate areas."

During the AAAS Annual Meeting, a panel on olfactory research also will explore the question of "olfactory memories"-how the brain can retain memories of smells, despite rapid turnover in the sensory neurons that inhabit the nose. Katz notes that the one of the next breakthroughs in the science of the olfactory system will allow scientists "to unravel the links between olfactory perception and the formation of long-term olfactory memories."

Advance interviews possible upon request.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world’s largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science. Founded in 1848, AAAS serves 134,000 members as well as 272 affiliates, representing 10 million scientists.

For more information on the AAAS, see the web site, Additional news from the AAAS Annual Meeting may be found online at

MEDIA NOTE: Katz will take part in a newsbriefing during the AAAS Annual Meeting in Denver on Thursday, 13 February at 12:00 p.m. noon Mountain Time, Rooms C-110-112, in the Colorado Convention Center. Katz , Greer and other researchers will then participate in an Annual Meeting session titled, "How the Nose Knows: Neural Circuits for Chemical Detection," at 2:30 p.m. Mountain Time, Saturday, 15 February, in Room A-205 on the Main Level of the Colorado Convention Center. Reporters must register at the AAAS Press Center, Rooms C-101-103, Colorado Convention Center.

AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society, dedicated to "Advancing science • Serving society."

Monica Amarelo | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht First time-lapse footage of cell activity during limb regeneration
25.10.2016 | eLife

nachricht Phenotype at the push of a button
25.10.2016 | Institut für Pflanzenbiochemie

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

First results of NSTX-U research operations

26.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

UCI and NASA document accelerated glacier melting in West Antarctica

26.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

Ice shelf vibrations cause unusual waves in Antarctic atmosphere

25.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>