Odor Coding in the Brain

Perceptual Coding of Natural Odors in the Human Brain
2010 Seed Grant
Jay Gottfried, M.D., Ph.D.
Department of Neurology
Northwestern University

The majority of natural scents encountered in the environment are complex mixtures of dozens, or even hundreds, of different molecular constituents. Thus a key challenge for the olfactory system is to transform these complex blends of odor stimuli into unified perceptions of smells. However, olfactory neuroscience research has focused almost exclusively on the neural processing of pure (monomolecular) odorants or simple odorant mixtures, overlooking the high dimensional ecological complexity of olfactory space. Using a combination of analytical chemistry, neuroimaging, and psychological research techniques, we will characterize the foundations of human olfactory perception simultaneously across molecular, neural, and behavioral levels. Parallel investigation of natural, real-world odor “wholes,” as well as their component “parts,” will provide new insights regarding how the human brain extracts olfactory meaning from a complex odiferous environment.

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