Science news | Study shows that olfactory sense is our fastest warning system

Stockholm [Sweden]October 15 (ANI): Researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden were able to study what happens in the brain when the central nervous system perceives an odor as a danger.

The study showed that negative smells associated with malaise or discomfort are processed earlier than positive smells and trigger a physical avoidance response.

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The results of the study were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The ability to detect the smell of a potential threat and react to it is a prerequisite for the survival of us and other mammals.

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“The human avoidance response to unpleasant odors associated with danger has long been viewed as a conscious cognitive process, but our study shows for the first time that it is unconscious and extremely rapid,” said the study’s lead author, Behzad Iravani Researcher at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet.

The olfactory organ takes up about five percent of the human brain and enables us to distinguish many millions of different smells. A large proportion of these odors have been linked to threats to our health and survival, such as chemicals and rotten food. Smell signals reach the brain within 100 to 150 milliseconds after they are inhaled through the nose.

The survival of all living organisms depends on their ability to avoid danger and seek rewards. In humans, the sense of smell seems to be particularly important in order to recognize and react to potentially harmful stimuli.

It has long been a mystery which neural mechanisms are involved in converting an unpleasant odor into avoidance behavior in humans. One reason for this is the lack of non-invasive methods of measuring signals from the olfactory bulb, the first part of the rhinencephalon (literally “nasal brain”) with direct (monosynaptic) connections to the important central parts of the nervous system, which are helpful for us to recognize and remember us to threatening and dangerous situations and substances.

Researchers at the Karolinska Institutet have now developed a method that makes it possible for the first time to measure signals from the human olfactory bulb, which processes odors and in turn can transmit signals to parts of the brain that control movement and avoidance behavior.

Their results are based on three experiments in which participants were asked to rate their experiences with six different smells, some positive, others negative, while measuring the electrophysiological activity of the olfactory bulb in responding to each of the smells.

“It was clear that the light bulb reacts specifically and quickly to negative odors and sends a direct signal to the motor cortex within about 300 ms. The signal causes the person to unconsciously lean back and away from the source of the odor, ”according to the last author of the study, Johan Lundstrom, Associate Professor at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet.

“The results suggest that our sense of smell is important to our ability to sense danger around us, and much of that ability is more subconscious than our response to danger, which is conveyed through our eyes and ears,” he added .

The study was funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, and the Swedish Research Council. No conflicts of interest were reported. (ANI)

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