Research: What makes a smell a smell?

May 02, 2016, 4:05 PM EDT
(Source: Eli Tucker/flickr)
(Source: Eli Tucker/flickr)

The science behind olfactory senses and brain activity has fascinated researchers for centuries, namely the puzzling relationships between smell, memory and behavior. This month saw unique approaches to the study of smell from both the academic world (via a new study by Columbia University) and the technology one.

Let’s start with Vapor Communications, which unveiled “Cyrano” last week: a "digital scent speaker and mood modification platform" in the form of a small electronic device that plays series of scents the company calls "mood medleys." Cyrano is designed to address "olfactory fatigue" — a side effect of over-exposure to scents such as candles. Olfactory fatigue includes the temporary inability to distinguish odors because of such exposure. Cyrano allows users to make scent playlists, and taps into the visceral connection between olfactory and memory.

Vapor Communications founder David Edwards told Mashable: "There is only one sensory nerve that goes right to your brain, and that's the olfactory nerve. So you feel it before you cognitively analyze it — you begin to cry, you remember somebody or you are hungry before knowing what you smelled."

Meanwhile, researchers at Columbia are delving into the science of smell on a molecular level, using an approach from a chemist’s perspective to find out what gives a smell, well, a smell. The resulting paper, published in April in Nature Communications, detailed how researchers turned "to medicinal chemistry, which emphasizes biological function over chemical form, in an attempt to discern which among the many molecular features are most important for odour discrimination."

The paper’s author, Dr. Stuart Firestein, told the audience at the 2015 Blouin Creative Leadership Summit (BCLS) that the neuroscience of the olfactory system has been traditionally understudied, and may not be as "clinically relevant" as other senses. His team’s studies previously unknown elements of how an odor’s chemical structure is related to its smell. 

At past BCLS events, Firestein has emphasized that the olfactory system is the world’s most advanced chemical detector. The study of odor receptors and the chemical makeup of smell can aid in a myriad of projects, for example the creation of public toilet systems in areas of the world where poor septic systems have led people to relieve themselves in fields instead of toilets because of the smell. Firestein noted that a better understanding of the olfactory system and smell itself can be used in that example to actually improve quality of life. And so is Vapor Communications in a way, albeit on a more profit-based level.