In search of the structure of human olfactory space

Front Syst Neurosci. 2011 Sep 15;5:65. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2011.00065. eCollection 2011.


We analyze the responses of human observers to an ensemble of monomolecular odorants. Each odorant is characterized by a set of 146 perceptual descriptors obtained from a database of odor character profiles. Each odorant is therefore represented by a point in a highly multidimensional sensory space. In this work we study the arrangement of odorants in this perceptual space. We argue that odorants densely sample a two-dimensional curved surface embedded in the multidimensional sensory space. This surface can account for more than half of the variance of the perceptual data. We also show that only 12% of experimental variance cannot be explained by curved surfaces of substantially small dimensionality (<10). We suggest that these curved manifolds represent the relevant spaces sampled by the human olfactory system, thereby providing surrogates for olfactory sensory space. For the case of 2D approximation, we relate the two parameters on the curved surface to the physico-chemical parameters of odorant molecules. We show that one of the dimensions is related to eigenvalues of molecules' connectivity matrix, while the other is correlated with measures of molecules' polarity. We discuss the behavioral significance of these findings.

Keywords: olfaction; perception; profiling; sensory space.