Time-frequency analysis of chemosensory event-related potentials to characterize the cortical representation of odors in humans

PLoS One. 2012;7(3):e33221. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0033221. Epub 2012 Mar 9.


Background: The recording of olfactory and trigeminal chemosensory event-related potentials (ERPs) has been proposed as an objective and non-invasive technique to study the cortical processing of odors in humans. Until now, the responses have been characterized mainly using across-trial averaging in the time domain. Unfortunately, chemosensory ERPs, in particular, olfactory ERPs, exhibit a relatively low signal-to-noise ratio. Hence, although the technique is increasingly used in basic research as well as in clinical practice to evaluate people suffering from olfactory disorders, its current clinical relevance remains very limited. Here, we used a time-frequency analysis based on the wavelet transform to reveal EEG responses that are not strictly phase-locked to onset of the chemosensory stimulus. We hypothesized that this approach would significantly enhance the signal-to-noise ratio of the EEG responses to chemosensory stimulation because, as compared to conventional time-domain averaging, (1) it is less sensitive to temporal jitter and (2) it can reveal non phase-locked EEG responses such as event-related synchronization and desynchronization.

Methodology/principal findings: EEG responses to selective trigeminal and olfactory stimulation were recorded in 11 normosmic subjects. A Morlet wavelet was used to characterize the elicited responses in the time-frequency domain. We found that this approach markedly improved the signal-to-noise ratio of the obtained EEG responses, in particular, following olfactory stimulation. Furthermore, the approach allowed characterizing non phase-locked components that could not be identified using conventional time-domain averaging.

Conclusion/significance: By providing a more robust and complete view of how odors are represented in the human brain, our approach could constitute the basis for a robust tool to study olfaction, both for basic research and clinicians.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Odorants*
  • Olfactory Nerve / drug effects
  • Olfactory Nerve / physiology*
  • Olfactory Pathways / physiology*
  • ROC Curve
  • Smell / physiology*
  • Stimulation, Chemical
  • Time Factors
  • Trigeminal Nerve / drug effects
  • Trigeminal Nerve / physiology*