Psychophysical and behavioral characteristics of olfactory adaptation

Chem Senses. 2000 Aug;25(4):487-92. doi: 10.1093/chemse/25.4.487.


Sensory adaptation allows organisms to reach behavioral equilibrium with the ambient environment and respond primarily to changes in stimulation. Given its functional significance, it is not surprising that adaptation in the olfactory system exhibits many of the same characteristics as adaptation in other sensory systems, including vision. Repeated or prolonged exposure to an odorant typically leads to stimulus-specific decreases in olfactory sensitivity to that odorant, but sensitivity recovers over time in the absence of further exposure. Psychophysical analysis shows that olfactory adaptation results in elevations in odor thresholds and in reduced responsiveness to suprathreshold stimulation. Further, the magnitude of the decrease and the time course of adaptation and recovery are dependent on the concentration of the odor and on the duration of exposure. It is generally agreed that olfactory adaptation can occur at multiple levels in the olfactory system and can involve both peripheral (receptor level) and more central (post-receptor) components. Evidence for peripheral and central involvement comes from studies showing that monorhinal stimulation results in adaptation in both the ipsilateral and contralateral nostril, although the degree of adaptation in the ipsilateral nostril is more profound and recovery is slower. Additional evidence for central involvement comes from studies that have found relatively small decreases in peripheral response following repeated stimulation despite substantial reductions in perceived intensity. Most psychophysical studies of adaptation, however, have not differentiated the peripheral and central processes. Although relatively few in number, studies of the parametric features of olfactory adaptation in both vertebrate (e.g. rat) and invertebrate (e.g. Drosophila, Caenorhabditis elegans) animal models appear to replicate the findings in psychophysical studies of adult humans. Despite the broad overall similarity of olfactory adaptation to adaptation in other sensory systems, olfactory adaptation exhibits some unique features. Adaptation in olfaction has been shown to be very long-lasting in some cases and may be modulated by the contribution of pre-neural events and physico-chemical properties of the odorant molecules that govern diffusion to receptor sites and post-receptor clearance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Animals
  • Models, Biological
  • Odorants
  • Smell / physiology*