Neural activity at the human olfactory epithelium reflects olfactory perception

Nat Neurosci. 2011 Sep 25;14(11):1455-61. doi: 10.1038/nn.2926.


Organization of receptive surfaces reflects primary axes of perception. In vision, retinal coordinates reflect spatial coordinates. In audition, cochlear coordinates reflect tonal coordinates. However, the rules underlying the organization of the olfactory receptive surface are unknown. To test the hypothesis that organization of the olfactory epithelium reflects olfactory perception, we inserted an electrode into the human olfactory epithelium to directly measure odorant-induced evoked responses. We found that pairwise differences in odorant pleasantness predicted pairwise differences in response magnitude; that is, a location that responded maximally to a pleasant odorant was likely to respond strongly to other pleasant odorants, and a location that responded maximally to an unpleasant odorant was likely to respond strongly to other unpleasant odorants. Moreover, the extent of an individual's perceptual span predicted their span in evoked response. This suggests that, similarly to receptor surfaces for vision and audition, organization of the olfactory receptor surface reflects key axes of perception.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Area Under Curve
  • Chemical Phenomena
  • Electrooculography / methods
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Odorants
  • Olfactory Mucosa / cytology*
  • Olfactory Pathways / physiology
  • Olfactory Perception / physiology*
  • Pleasure / physiology
  • Reaction Time / drug effects
  • Smell / physiology*
  • Stimulation, Chemical
  • Time Factors