The fundamental role of memory in olfactory perception

Trends Neurosci. 2003 May;26(5):243-7. doi: 10.1016/S0166-2236(03)00076-6.


Current emphasis on odorant physiochemical features as the basis for perception largely ignores the synthetic and experience-dependent nature of olfaction. Olfaction is synthetic, as mammals have only limited ability to identify elements within even simple odor mixtures. Furthermore, olfaction is experience-bound, as exposure alone can significantly affect the extent to which stimuli can be discriminated. We propose that early analytical processing of odors is inaccessible at the behavioral level and that all odors are initially encoded as 'objects' in the piriform cortex. Moreover, we suggest that odor perception is wholly dependent on the integrity of this memory system and that its loss severely impairs normal perception.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Discrimination Learning
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Odorants / analysis*
  • Olfactory Pathways
  • Perception / physiology*
  • Receptors, Odorant / drug effects
  • Receptors, Odorant / physiology*
  • Smell / physiology*


  • Receptors, Odorant