The spatial distribution of receptors within sensory epithelia (e.g., retina and skin) is often markedly nonuniform to gain efficiency in information capture and neural processing. By contrast, odors, unlike visual and tactile stimuli, have no obvious spatial dimension. What need then could there be for either nearest-neighbor relationships or nonuniform distributions of receptor cells in the olfactory epithelium (OE)? Adrian (Adrian ED. J Physiol 100: 459-473, 1942; Adrian ED. Br Med Bull 6: 330-332, 1950) provided the only widely debated answer to this question when he posited that the physical properties of odors, such as volatility and water solubility, determine a spatial pattern of stimulation across the OE that could aid odor discrimination. Unfortunately, despite its longevity, few critical tests of the "sorption hypothesis" exist. Here we test the predictions of this hypothesis by mapping mouse OE responses using the electroolfactogram (EOG) and comparing these response "maps" to computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulations of airflow and odorant sorption patterns in the nasal cavity. CFD simulations were performed for airflow rates corresponding to quiet breathing and sniffing. Consistent with predictions of the sorption hypothesis, water-soluble odorants tended to evoke larger EOG responses in the central portion of the OE than the peripheral portion. However, sorption simulation patterns along individual nasal turbinates for particular odorants did not correlate with their EOG response gradients. Indeed, the most consistent finding was a rostral-greater to caudal-lesser response gradient for all the odorants tested that is unexplained by sorption patterns. The viability of the sorption and related olfactory "fovea" hypotheses are discussed in light of these findings.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Two classical ideas concerning olfaction's receptor-surface two-dimensional organization-the sorption and olfactory fovea hypotheses-were found wanting in this study that afforded unprecedented comparisons between electrophysiological recordings in the mouse olfactory epithelium and computational fluid dynamic simulations of nasal airflow. Alternatively, it is proposed that the olfactory receptor layouts in macrosmatic mammals may be an evolutionary contingent state devoid of the functional significance found in other sensory epithelia like the cochlea and retina.
Keywords: computation fluid dynamics; electroolfactogram; olfactory epithelium.
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