Peripheral adaptive filtering in human olfaction? Three studies on prevalence and effects of olfactory training in specific anosmia in more than 1600 participants

Cortex. 2015 Dec;73:180-7. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2015.08.018. Epub 2015 Sep 12.


Selective processing of environmental stimuli improves processing capacity and allows adaptive modulation of behavior. The thalamus provides an effective filter of central sensory information processing. As olfactory projections, however, largely bypass the thalamus, other filter mechanisms must consequently have evolved for the sense of smell. We investigated whether specific anosmia - the inability to perceive a specific odor whereas detection of other substances is unaffected - represents an effective peripheral filter of olfactory information processing. In contrast to previous studies, we showed in a sample of 1600 normosmic subjects, that specific anosmia is by no means a rare phenomenon. Instead, while the affected odor is highly individual, the general probability of occurrence of specific anosmia is close to 1. In addition, 25 subjects performed daily olfactory training sessions with enhanced exposure to their particular "missing" smells for the duration of three months. This resulted in a significant improvement of sensitivity towards the respective specific odors. We propose specific anosmia to occur as a rule, rather than an exception, in the sense of smell. The lack of perception of certain odors may constitute a flexible peripheral filter mechanism, which can be altered by exposure.

Keywords: Attention; Filter; Odor; Olfaction; Perception; Periphery.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Odorants / prevention & control*
  • Olfaction Disorders / diagnosis
  • Olfaction Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Prevalence
  • Sensation / physiology
  • Sensory Thresholds / physiology*
  • Smell / physiology*
  • Young Adult