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Concept: Olfactory fatigue


People struggle to name odors [1-4]. This has been attributed to a diminution of olfaction in trade-off to vision [5-10]. This presumption has been challenged recently by data from the hunter-gatherer Jahai who, unlike English speakers, find odors as easy to name as colors [4]. Is the superior olfactory performance among the Jahai because of their ecology (tropical rainforest), their language family (Aslian), or because of their subsistence (they are hunter-gatherers)? We provide novel evidence from the hunter-gatherer Semaq Beri and the non-hunter-gatherer (swidden-horticulturalist) Semelai that subsistence is the critical factor. Semaq Beri and Semelai speakers-who speak closely related languages and live in the tropical rainforest of the Malay Peninsula-took part in a controlled odor- and color-naming experiment. The swidden-horticulturalist Semelai found odors much more difficult to name than colors, replicating the typical Western finding. But for the hunter-gatherer Semaq Beri odor naming was as easy as color naming, suggesting that hunter-gatherer olfactory cognition is special.

Concepts: Color, Language, Olfaction, Odor, Rainforest, Olfactory fatigue, Electronic nose, Olfactometer


How can odor-guided behavior of numerous individual Drosophila be assessed automatically with high temporal resolution? For this purpose we introduce the automatic integrated tracking and odor-delivery system Flywalk. In fifteen aligned small wind tunnels individual flies are exposed to repeated odor pulses, well defined in concentration and timing. The flies' positions are visually tracked, which allows quantification of the odor-evoked walking behavior with high temporal resolution of up to 100 ms. As a demonstration of Flywalk we show that the flies' behavior is odorant-specific; attractive odors elicit directed upwind movements, while repellent odors evoke decreased activity, followed by downwind movements. These changes in behavior differ between sexes. Furthermore our findings show that flies can evaluate the sex of a conspecific and males can determine a female’s mating status based on olfactory cues. Consequently, Flywalk allows automatic screening of individual flies for their olfactory preference and sensitivity.

Concepts: Male, Female, Sex, Olfaction, Odor, Olfactory fatigue, Electronic nose, Olfactometer


Many previous studies have reported robust sex differences in olfactory perception. However, both men and women can be expected to vary in the degree to which they exhibit olfactory performance considered typical of their own or the opposite sex. Sex-atypicality is often described in terms of childhood gender nonconformity, which, however, is not a perfect correlate of non-heterosexual orientation. Here we explored intrasexual variability in psychophysical olfactory performance in a sample of 156 individuals (83 non-heterosexual) and found the lowest odor identification scores in heterosexual men. However, when childhood gender nonconformity was entered in the model along with sexual orientation, better odor identification scores were exhibited by gender-nonconforming men, and greater olfactory sensitivity by gender-conforming women, irrespective of their sexual orientation. Thus, sex-atypicality, but not sexual orientation predicts olfactory performance, and we propose that this might not be limited to olfaction, but represent a more general phenomenon.

Concepts: Gender, Sense, Olfaction, Odor, Sexual orientation, Transgender, Olfactory fatigue, Heterosexuality


It is commonly believed that humans have a poor sense of smell compared to other mammalian species. However, this idea derives not from empirical studies of human olfaction but from a famous 19th-century anatomist’s hypothesis that the evolution of human free will required a reduction in the proportional size of the brain’s olfactory bulb. The human olfactory bulb is actually quite large in absolute terms and contains a similar number of neurons to that of other mammals. Moreover, humans have excellent olfactory abilities. We can detect and discriminate an extraordinary range of odors, we are more sensitive than rodents and dogs for some odors, we are capable of tracking odor trails, and our behavioral and affective states are influenced by our sense of smell.

Concepts: Brain, Hippocampus, Mammal, Olfaction, Primate, Odor, Olfactory fatigue, Electronic nose


Humans can discriminate several million different colors and almost half a million different tones, but the number of discriminable olfactory stimuli remains unknown. The lay and scientific literature typically claims that humans can discriminate 10,000 odors, but this number has never been empirically validated. We determined the resolution of the human sense of smell by testing the capacity of humans to discriminate odor mixtures with varying numbers of shared components. On the basis of the results of psychophysical testing, we calculated that humans can discriminate at least 1 trillion olfactory stimuli. This is far more than previous estimates of distinguishable olfactory stimuli. It demonstrates that the human olfactory system, with its hundreds of different olfactory receptors, far outperforms the other senses in the number of physically different stimuli it can discriminate.

Concepts: Science, Sense, Olfaction, Olfactory system, Primate, Taste, Odor, Olfactory fatigue


Social factors play a critical role in a panoply of health processes, including, as recently demonstrated, olfaction. Here, we investigated sex-dependent differences in the relationship between social lives and ability to identify odors in a large sample of nationally representative older US adults (nā€‰=ā€‰3005, National Social Life and Aging Project (NSHAP)). Social life was measured by the number of friends and close relatives as well as frequency of socializing. We here confirm the association between social lives and olfactory function and extend the notion by showing specifically that olfactory identification ability is modulated by sex in older adults. The connection between olfactory performance and social lives could reflect social modulation of aging as has been reported for health in general. Future studies are necessary to elucidate the precise mechanisms underlying this association and sex difference.

Concepts: Biology, Sociology, Differences, Olfaction, Odor, Olfactory fatigue, Electronic nose, Olfactometer


The scent of another person can activate memories, trigger emotions, and spark romantic attraction; however, almost nothing is known about whether and how human scents influence responses to stress. In the current study, 96 women were randomly assigned to smell one of three scents (their romantic partner’s, a stranger’s, or a neutral scent) and exposed to an acute stressor (Trier Social Stress Test). Perceived stress and cortisol were measured continuously throughout the study (5 and 7 times, respectively). Perceived stress was reduced in women who were exposed to their partner’s scent. This reduction was observed during stress anticipation and stress recovery. Cortisol levels were elevated in women who were exposed to a stranger’s scent. This elevation was observed throughout stress anticipation, peak stress, and stress recovery. The current work speaks to the critical role of human olfactory cues in social communication and reveals that social scents can impact both psychological and physiological reactions to stress. (PsycINFO Database Record

Concepts: Psychology, Cognition, Olfaction, Odor, Olfactory fatigue, Electronic nose, Olfactometer, Smell


The fermentation hypothesis for animal signalling posits that bacteria dwelling in an animal’s scent glands metabolize the glands' primary products into odorous compounds used by the host to communicate with conspecifics. There is, however, little evidence of the predicted covariation between an animal’s olfactory cues and its glandular bacterial communities. Using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, we first identified the volatile compounds present in ‘pure’ versus ‘mixed’ anal-gland secretions (‘paste’) of adult meerkats (Suricata suricatta) living in the wild. Low-molecular-weight chemicals that likely derive from bacterial metabolism were more prominent in mixed than pure secretions. Focusing thereafter on mixed secretions, we showed that chemical composition varied by sex and was more similar between members of the same group than between members of different groups. Subsequently, using next-generation sequencing, we identified the bacterial assemblages present in meerkat paste and documented relationships between these assemblages and the host’s sex, social status and group membership. Lastly, we found significant covariation between the volatile compounds and bacterial assemblages in meerkat paste, particularly in males. Together, these results are consistent with a role for bacteria in the production of sex- and group-specific scents, and with the evolution of mutualism between meerkats and their glandular microbiota.

Concepts: Bacteria, Evolution, Metabolism, Olfaction, Odor, Olfactory fatigue, Aroma compound, MeerKAT


Olfaction is an important sensory modality driving fundamental behaviors. During odor-dependent learning, a positive value is commonly assigned to an odorant, and multiple forms of plasticity are involved when such odor-reward associations are formed. In rodents, one of the mechanisms underlying plasticity in the olfactory bulb consists in recruiting new neurons daily throughout life. However, it is still unknown whether adult-born neurons might participate in encoding odor value. Here, we demonstrate that exposure to reward-associated odors specifically increases activity of adult-born neurons but not preexisting neurons. Remarkably, adult-born neuron activation during rewarded odor presentation heightens discrimination learning and enhances the ability to update the odor value during reversal association. Moreover, in some cases, activation of this interneuron population can trigger olfactory learning without sensory stimulation. Taken together, our results show a specific involvement of adult-born neurons in facilitating odor-reward association during adaptive learning.

Concepts: Brain, Action potential, Olfactory bulb, Olfaction, Odor, Olfactory fatigue, Electronic nose, Olfactometer


Human scent identification is based on a matching-to-sample task in which trained dogs are required to compare a scent sample collected from an object found at a crime scene to that of a suspect. Based on dogs' greater olfactory ability to detect and process odours, this method has been used in forensic investigations to identify the odour of a suspect at a crime scene. The excellent reliability and reproducibility of the method largely depend on rigor in dog training. The present study describes the various steps of training that lead to high sensitivity scores, with dogs matching samples with 90% efficiency when the complexity of the scents presented during the task in the sample is similar to that presented in the in lineups, and specificity reaching a ceiling, with no false alarms in human scent matching-to-sample tasks. This high level of accuracy ensures reliable results in judicial human scent identification tests. Also, our data should convince law enforcement authorities to use these results as official forensic evidence when dogs are trained appropriately.

Concepts: Olfaction, Odor, Olfactory fatigue, Electronic nose, Olfactometer