Emerging views on the distinct but related roles of the main and accessory olfactory systems in responsiveness to chemosensory signals in mice

Horm Behav. 2004 Sep;46(3):247-56. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2004.02.009.


In rodents, the nasal cavity contains two separate chemosensory epithelia, the main olfactory epithelium, located in the posterior dorsal aspect of the nasal cavity, and the vomeronasal/accessory olfactory epithelium, located in a capsule in the anterior aspect of the ventral floor of the nasal cavity. Both the main and accessory olfactory systems play a role in detection of biologically relevant odors. The accessory olfactory system has been implicated in response to pheromones, while the main olfactory system is thought to be a general molecular analyzer capable of detecting subtle differences in molecular structure of volatile odorants. However, the role of the two systems in detection of biologically relevant chemical signals appears to be partially overlapping. Thus, while it is clear that the accessory olfactory system is responsive to putative pheromones, the main olfactory system can also respond to some pheromones. Conversely, while the main olfactory system can mediate recognition of differences in genetic makeup by smell, the vomeronasal organ (VNO) also appears to participate in recognition of chemosensory differences between genetically distinct individuals. The most salient feature of our review of the literature is that there are no general rules that allow classification of the accessory olfactory system as a pheromone detector and the main olfactory system as a detector of general odorants. Instead, each behavior must be considered within a specific behavioral context to determine the role of these two chemosensory systems. In each case, one system or the other (or both) participates in a specific behavioral or hormonal response.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Chemoreceptor Cells / physiology
  • Cyclic AMP
  • Humans
  • Major Histocompatibility Complex / genetics
  • Major Histocompatibility Complex / physiology*
  • Mice
  • Neurons, Afferent / physiology
  • Olfactory Mucosa / cytology
  • Olfactory Mucosa / physiology
  • Olfactory Pathways / physiology*
  • Perception / physiology*
  • Pheromones / physiology*
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Smell / genetics
  • Smell / immunology
  • Smell / physiology*
  • Urine / physiology
  • Vomeronasal Organ / cytology
  • Vomeronasal Organ / physiology*


  • Pheromones
  • Cyclic AMP