Odor memory induces brain activation as measured by functional MRI

J Comput Assist Tomogr. Jul-Aug 1999;23(4):487-98. doi: 10.1097/00004728-199907000-00001.


Purpose: Our goal was to use functional MRI (fMRI) to measure brain activation in response to imagination of odors in humans.

Method: fMR brain scans were obtained in 21 normal subjects (9 men, 12 women) using multislice FLASH MRI in response to imagination of odors of banana and peppermint and to the actual smells of the corresponding odors of amyl acetate and menthone, respectively, in three coronal sections selected from anterior to posterior temporal brain regions. Similar studies were obtained in two patients with hyposmia using FLASH MRI and in one patient with hyposmia using echo planar imaging, both before and after theophylline treatment, which returned smell function to or toward normal in each patient. Activation images were derived using correlation analysis, and ratios of areas of brain activated to total brain areas were calculated.

Results: Activation was present in each section in all normal subjects and in each patient after imagination of each vapor. In normal subjects, brain activation in response to imagination of odors was significantly less than that in response to the actual smell of these odors, and activation following imagination of banana odor was significantly greater in men than in women, as was previously reported for the actual smell of the odor of amyl acetate. However, in relative terms, albeit at an absolute lower brain activation level, the ratio of brain activation by imagination of banana to activation by actual amyl acetate odor was about twice as high in women as in men. Before treatment, in patients with hyposmia, brain activation in response to odor imagination was greater than after presentation of the actual odor itself. After treatment, in patients with hyposmia in whom smell acuity returned to or toward normal, brain activation in response to odor imagination was not significantly different quantitatively from that before treatment; however, brain activation in response to the actual odor was significantly greater than that in response to imagination of the corresponding odor. Brain regions activated by both odor imagination and actual corresponding odor were similar and consistent with regions previously described as responding to odors.

Conclusion: These studies indicate that (a) odors can be imagined and similar brain regions are activated by both imagined and corresponding actual odors; (b) imagination of odors elicits quantitatively less brain activation than do actual smells of corresponding odors in normal subjects; (c) absolute brain activation in men by odor imagination is greater than in women for some odors, but on a relative basis, the ratio for odor imagination to actual smell in women is twice that in men; (d) odor imagination, once the odor has been experienced, is present, recallable, and capable of inducing a relatively constant degree of brain activation even in the absence of the ability to recognize an actual corresponding odor.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Echo-Planar Imaging
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Odorants*
  • Olfaction Disorders / drug therapy
  • Olfaction Disorders / physiopathology
  • Smell / physiology
  • Theophylline / therapeutic use


  • Theophylline