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Carlos Diego A.

Rozul 2PSY4
The Sense of Smell
The nose is a fascinating sensory organ as it is responsible for our sense of smell or
olfactory sense. Smell is the response of the olfactory system to airborne chemicals that
are drawn by inhalation over receptors in the nasal passages (Pinel, 2011). Like
gustation or sense of taste, it is a chemical sense because their function is to monitor
the chemical content of the environment. It is also the only sensation that does not
need to relay signals to the thalamus, and is closely related to our emotions due to its
close relation to the medial temporal lobe, near the amygdala (Hawkes, 2009).
According to Macdonald Critchley (1986), the sense of smell largely determines
the flavor of foods and beverages and provides an early warning system for the
detection of hazards (as cited in Hawkes, 2009). What we know as flavor is actually an
integrated sensory impression of both smell and taste (Pinel, 2011). Different patterns of
odorants and tastes elicit different flavors. Ones olfaction also serves as an index of the
health sectors of the brain not discernible by other means. Therefore, a decline in
olfaction can signify the early development of a neuropathology within limbic structures
which can lead to Parkinsons disease and Alzheimers disease (Hawkes, 2009).
Not many inorganic compounds exhibit odorants, but organic compounds do
which is why metals and plastics usually dont smell like anything and spices and other
organic products have a distinct aroma (Klein, 2012). Odorants are typically small,
hydrophobic and lipophilic molecules with binding affinities in the micromolar range
(Hawkes, 2009). The olfactory receptors are embedded in a layer of mucus covered
tissue called the olfactory mucosa (Pinel, 2011) which means, odorants must pass
through the aqueous mucus barrier with the help of soluble proteins (Pelosi et al., 1990;
Hawkes, 2009). These proteins can also filter the amount of odorant reaching
receptors; the human nose can actually smell most compounds in extremely low
concentrations (Hawkes, 2009).
The olfactory receptor cell contains one
type of recptor protein molecule called the
one-olfactory-receptor-one-neuron rule
(Serizawa et. al, 2003; Pinel 2011). Structurally
similar molecules, even stereoisomers, can
have quite different odors and structurally
dissimilar molecules can have similar odors. An
odorant can be recognized by more than one
type of receptor and a single receptor can
recognize a variety of structurally diverse
stimuli, often exhibiting different thresholds to
various odorants (Hawkes, 2009). Molecular
features to which a given receptor is sensitive
are in effect mapped to circumscribed regions
of the olfactory bulb, which means the
receptors are activated in a lock and key function (Pinel, 2011) like in most biological
receptors and chiral drugs (Klein, 2012) with varying intesity. For example, carvone
enantiomers as shown in Figure 1 have different odors. (R)-carvone is perceived as
the odor of mint, while (S)-carvone is
perceived as the odor of caraway seeds
(Klein, 2012). Limonene enantiomers as
shown in Figure 2 have different odors as
well. (R)-limonene is perceived as oranges
while (S)-limonene is perceived as lemon
(Hawkes, 2009).
Most odorant receptor cells express the
enzyme adenylyl cyclase, which contains 12
transmembrane domains (Ronnett & Snyder,
1992; Hawkes, 2009). When a receptor is
activated, the enzyme breaks down cytosolic
adenosine triphosphate into 3,5-cyclic
adenosine monophosphate and
pyrophosphate. The ability of an odorant to
activate adenylyl cyclase correlates with its
perceived odor intensity. Some olfactory receptor neurons that dont express adenylyl
cyclase, utilize other transduction enzymes (Bruch, 1990; Hawkes, 2009) but these elicit
lower levels of intensity (Kaupp & Seifert, 2002; Hawkes, 2009).
Like other sensory systems, the olfactory system has means of enhancing the
signal:noise ratio. This system adapts background odors to make foreground odors more
salient. Since repeated presentation of the same stimulus at high enough intensity can
temporarily decrement ones ability to perceive the specific odorant (adaption) or
other odorants (cross-adaptation) (Hawkes, 2009). For example, concanavalin A as
shown in Figure 3 blocks blocks transduction induced by (R)-carvone when rodents
are exposed to concanavalin A at a high intensity, but does not affect transduction
induced by (S)-carvone (Kirner, Deutsch, Weiler, Polak, & Apfelbach, 2003). Adaption of
one nasal chamber produces adaptation in the other nasal chamber. For cross-
adaption, it is asymmetrical, which means one odorant may decrease the perceived
intensity of another but when reversed, it does not decrease perceived intensity at the
same degree (Hawkes, 2009).
Different compounds create different
patterns of intensity on the olfactory bulbs
received by the receptor cells, enabling
humans to distinguish over 10,000 different
odors (Klein, 2012). Although there have been
studies that suggest that odors are not
forgotten to the same extent as other
sensations (Engen & Ross, 1973; Hawkes,
2009). The novelty of a stimulus and its
emotional semantic association are critical in
establishing its salience (Davis, 1977; Herz,
1998; Hawkes, 2009). Strong anatomical
connections between the olfactory pathways
in the medial temporal lobes and the limbic
system regions which are concerned with
memory and emotion is a reason for the interrelation of memory, emotion, and smell
(Hawkes, 2009). For women, semantic processes are more important in remembering
odors (Larsson et al., 2003; Oberg et al., 2002; Hawkes, 2009).
There are many factors contributing to the quality of olfaction like age, gender,
hormone and neurotransmitter patterns, amount of sleep, pollution, substance use
habits, etc (Hawkes, 2009). In certain cases, these can degrade olfaction and cause a
disorder. Anosmia is the complete absence of olfactory perception (Pinel, 2011) which
is quite rare, but for specific anosmia, 1-2% of the general population is affected by it
and often left unnoticed. Being specifically anosmic to certain substances can lead to
other neurological ailments like Alzheimers disease (Hawkes, 2009). Hyperosmia is a
disorder of perception that is characterized by varying degrees of increased sensitivity
to one or more aromas. People with hyperosmia have a lower threshold to certain
odorants making them hyperreactive (Hawkes, 2009). An olfactory hallucination (also
called phantosmia and unstimulated dysosmia) is the perception of an odor in the
absence of the odorant. Olfactory hallucinations can be caused by uncinated seizures
and local nasal disease, but can also signify psychiatric illness (Hawkes, 2009). Disorders
in olfaction can also be caused by infections, head injury, migraines, multimple sclerosis,
tumors and inflammatory diseases, endocrinal diseases, and neurodegenerative
diseases (Hawkes, 2009).
In summary, the olfactory system is a complex structure affected by many
external and internal influences. The perception of one compound is different than
another due to different stimulation patterns in the olfactory bulbs relayed by the
olfactory receptors. Differences in composition, chirality, and even stereoisomerism
elicit a different perception of odor. A multitude of different circumstances can cause a
disorder in olfaction, but not to neglect, an olfactory disorder can lead to neurological
illness and even signal the presence of a psychiatric illness.
Hawkes, C. H. (2009). The neurology of olfaction. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge
University Press.
Kirner, A., Deutsch, S., Weiler, E., Polak, E. H., & Apfelbach, R. (2003). Concanavalin A
application to the olfactory epithelium reveals different sensory neuron
populations for the odour pair D- and L- carvone. Behavioural Brain Research,
Klein, D. (2012). Organic Chemistry. USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Pinel, J. P. (2011). Biopsychology. Juring, Singapore: Pearson Education Inc.