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Concept: Olfaction


Internal action models (IAMs) are brain templates for sensory-motor coordination underlying diverse behaviors [1]. An emerging theory suggests that impaired IAMs are a common theme in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) [2-4]. However, whether impaired IAMs occur across sensory systems and how they relate to the major phenotype of ASD, namely impaired social communication [5], remains unclear. Olfaction relies on an IAM known as the sniff response, where sniff magnitude is automatically modulated to account for odor valence [6-12]. To test the failed IAM theory in olfaction, we precisely measured the non-verbal non-task-dependent sniff response concurrent with pleasant and unpleasant odors in 36 children-18 with ASD and 18 matched typically developing (TD) controls. We found that whereas TD children generated a typical adult-like sniff response within 305 ms of odor onset, ASD children had a profoundly altered sniff response, sniffing equally regardless of odor valance. This difference persisted despite equal reported odor perception and allowed for 81% correct ASD classification based on the sniff response alone (binomial, p < 0.001). Moreover, increasingly aberrant sniffing was associated with increasingly severe ASD (r = -0.75, p < 0.001), specifically with social (r = -0.72, p < 0.001), but not motor (r < -0.38, p > 0.18), impairment. These results uncover a novel ASD marker implying a mechanistic link between the underpinnings of olfaction and ASD and directly linking an impaired IAM with impaired social abilities.

Concepts: Autism, Pervasive developmental disorder, Sense, Olfaction, Asperger syndrome, Autism spectrum, Odor, Unpleasant odor


Whether olfaction recognizes odorants by their shape, their molecular vibrations, or both remains an open and controversial question. A convenient way to address it is to test for odor character differences between deuterated and undeuterated odorant isotopomers, since these have identical ground-state conformations but different vibrational modes. In a previous paper (Franco et al. (2011) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 108:9, 3797-802) we showed that fruit flies can recognize the presence of deuterium in odorants by a vibrational mechanism. Here we address the question of whether humans too can distinguish deuterated and undeuterated odorants. A previous report (Keller and Vosshall (2004) Nat Neurosci 7:4, 337-8) indicated that naive subjects are incapable of distinguishing acetophenone and d-8 acetophenone. Here we confirm and extend those results to trained subjects and gas-chromatography [GC]-pure odorants. However, we also show that subjects easily distinguish deuterated and undeuterated musk odorants purified to GC-pure standard. These results are consistent with a vibrational component in human olfaction.

Concepts: Spectroscopy, Olfaction, Perfume, Odor, Flavor, Aroma compound, Distinguish, Body odor


Each person expresses a potentially unique subset of ∼400 different olfactory receptor subtypes. Given that the receptors we express partially determine the odors we smell, it follows that each person may have a unique nose; to capture this, we devised a sensitive test of olfactory perception we termed the “olfactory fingerprint.” Olfactory fingerprints relied on matrices of perceived odorant similarity derived from descriptors applied to the odorants. We initially fingerprinted 89 individuals using 28 odors and 54 descriptors. We found that each person had a unique olfactory fingerprint (P < 10(-10)), which was odor specific but descriptor independent. We could identify individuals from this pool using randomly selected sets of 7 odors and 11 descriptors alone. Extrapolating from this data, we determined that using 34 odors and 35 descriptors we could individually identify each of the 7 billion people on earth. Olfactory perception, however, fluctuates over time, calling into question our proposed perceptual readout of presumably stable genetic makeup. To test whether fingerprints remain informative despite this temporal fluctuation, building on the linkage between olfactory receptors and HLA, we hypothesized that olfactory perception may relate to HLA. We obtained olfactory fingerprints and HLA typing for 130 individuals, and found that olfactory fingerprint matching using only four odorants was significantly related to HLA matching (P < 10(-4)), such that olfactory fingerprints can save 32% of HLA tests in a population screen (P < 10(-6)). In conclusion, a precise measure of olfactory perception reveals meaningful nonolfactory genetic information.

Concepts: Receptor, Sense, Olfaction, Olfactory receptor, Odor, Aroma compound, Fingerprint, Body odor


In mammals, odorants are detected by a large family of receptors that are each expressed in just a small subset of olfactory sensory neurons (OSNs). Here we describe a strain of transgenic mice engineered to express an octanal receptor in almost all OSNs. Remarkably, octanal triggered a striking and involuntary phenotype in these animals, with passive exposure regularly inducing seizures. Octanal exposure invariably resulted in widespread activation of OSNs but interestingly seizures only occurred in 30-40% of trials. We hypothesized that this reflects the need for the olfactory system to filter strong but slowly-changing backgrounds from salient signals. Therefore we used an olfactometer to control octanal delivery and demonstrated suppression of responses whenever this odorant is delivered slowly. By contrast, rapid exposure of the mice to octanal induced seizure in every trial. Our results expose new details of olfactory processing and provide a robust and non-invasive platform for studying epilepsy.

Concepts: Sensory system, Olfactory receptor neuron, Olfaction, Epilepsy, Olfactory receptor, Seizure, Odor, Sensory neuron


How can odor-guided behavior of numerous individual Drosophila be assessed automatically with high temporal resolution? For this purpose we introduce the automatic integrated tracking and odor-delivery system Flywalk. In fifteen aligned small wind tunnels individual flies are exposed to repeated odor pulses, well defined in concentration and timing. The flies' positions are visually tracked, which allows quantification of the odor-evoked walking behavior with high temporal resolution of up to 100 ms. As a demonstration of Flywalk we show that the flies' behavior is odorant-specific; attractive odors elicit directed upwind movements, while repellent odors evoke decreased activity, followed by downwind movements. These changes in behavior differ between sexes. Furthermore our findings show that flies can evaluate the sex of a conspecific and males can determine a female’s mating status based on olfactory cues. Consequently, Flywalk allows automatic screening of individual flies for their olfactory preference and sensitivity.

Concepts: Male, Female, Sex, Olfaction, Odor, Olfactory fatigue, Electronic nose, Olfactometer


Juxtaglomerular neurons represent one of the largest cellular populations in the mammalian olfactory bulb yet their role for signal processing remains unclear. We used two-photon imaging and electrophysiological recordings to clarify the properties of these cells and their functional organization in the juxtaglomerular space. Juxtaglomerular neurons coded for many perceptual characteristics of the olfactory stimulus such as (1) identity of the odorant, (2) odorant concentration, (3) odorant onset, and (4) offset. The odor-responsive neurons clustered within a narrow area surrounding the glomerulus with the same odorant specificity, with ~80% of responding cells located ≤20 μm from the glomerular border. This stereotypic spatial pattern of activated cells persisted at different odorant concentrations and was found for neurons both activated and inhibited by the odorant. Our data identify a principal glomerulus with a narrow shell of juxtaglomerular neurons as a basic odor coding unit in the glomerular layer and underline the important role of intraglomerular circuitry.

Concepts: Nephron, Action potential, Olfactory bulb, Olfactory receptor neuron, Olfaction, Olfactory system, Potassium, Odor


The aim of this study was to assess whether migration of thallium-201 (Tl) to the olfactory bulb were reduced in patients with olfactory impairments in comparison to healthy volunteers after nasal administration of Tl.

Concepts: Assessment, Olfactory bulb, Olfactory receptor neuron, Olfaction, Olfactory system, Olfactory nerve, Nasal cavity


Many previous studies have reported robust sex differences in olfactory perception. However, both men and women can be expected to vary in the degree to which they exhibit olfactory performance considered typical of their own or the opposite sex. Sex-atypicality is often described in terms of childhood gender nonconformity, which, however, is not a perfect correlate of non-heterosexual orientation. Here we explored intrasexual variability in psychophysical olfactory performance in a sample of 156 individuals (83 non-heterosexual) and found the lowest odor identification scores in heterosexual men. However, when childhood gender nonconformity was entered in the model along with sexual orientation, better odor identification scores were exhibited by gender-nonconforming men, and greater olfactory sensitivity by gender-conforming women, irrespective of their sexual orientation. Thus, sex-atypicality, but not sexual orientation predicts olfactory performance, and we propose that this might not be limited to olfaction, but represent a more general phenomenon.

Concepts: Gender, Sense, Olfaction, Odor, Sexual orientation, Transgender, Olfactory fatigue, Heterosexuality


Patchouli is used as an incense material and essential oil. The characteristic odor of patchouli leaves results from the drying process used in their production; however, there have to date been no reports on the changes in the odor of patchouli leaves during the drying process. We investigated the aroma profile of dried patchouli leaves using the hexane extracts of fresh and dried patchouli leaves. We focused on the presence or absence of the constituents of the fresh and dried extracts, and the differences in the content of the common constituents. Fourteen constituents were identified as characteristic of dried patchouli extract odor by gas chromatography-olfactometry analysis. The structures of seven of the 14 constituents were determined by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (α-patchoulene, seychellene, humulene, α-bulnesene, isoaromadendrene epoxide, caryophyllene oxide, and patchouli alcohol). The aroma profile of the essential oil obtained from the dried patchouli leaves was clearly different from that of dried patchouli. The aroma profile of the essential oil was investigated by a similar method. We identified 12 compounds as important odor constituents. The structures of nine of the 12 constituents were determined by gas chromatographymass spectrometry (cis-thujopsene, caryophyllene, α-guaiene, α-patchoulene, seychellene, α-bulnesene, isoaromadendrene epoxide, patchouli alcohol, and corymbolone). Comparing the odors and constituents demonstrated that the aroma profile of patchouli depends on the manufacturing process.

Concepts: Olfaction, Drying, Perfume, Odor, Essential oil, Aroma compound, Aromatherapy, Patchouli


Unlike current chemical trace detection technology, dogs actively sniff to acquire an odor sample. Flow visualization experiments with an anatomically-similar 3D printed dog’s nose revealed the external aerodynamics during canine sniffing, where ventral-laterally expired air jets entrain odorant-laden air toward the nose, thereby extending the “aerodynamic reach” for inspiration of otherwise inaccessible odors. Chemical sampling and detection experiments quantified two modes of operation with the artificial nose-active sniffing and continuous inspiration-and demonstrated an increase in odorant detection by a factor of up to 18 for active sniffing. A 16-fold improvement in detection was demonstrated with a commercially-available explosives detector by applying this bio-inspired design principle and making the device “sniff” like a dog. These lessons learned from the dog may benefit the next-generation of vapor samplers for explosives, narcotics, pathogens, or even cancer, and could inform future bio-inspired designs for optimized sampling of odor plumes.

Concepts: Fluid dynamics, Aerodynamics, Olfaction, Odor, Artificial insemination, Dog, Aroma compound, Body odor