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Pitt Research May Unlock Mysteries Of Our Sense Of Smell


Our sense of smell can tell us what’s for dinner when we walk in the front door, or bring us back to our fondest memories of childhood.

But how much do we know about the nose? Unfortunately, not enough.

That’s why researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have received a $6.4 million, three-year federal grant to study the olfactory system in both humans and animals. They team with other scientists to further understand the link between scent localization and the internal systems that control the nose.

“There’s some work that’s been done over the last few decades primarily to understand the proteins that odors in the environment actually bind to and that then causes the activation of neurons in the nose. After that, it becomes very gray, very much a black box,” said Nathan Urban, professor of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

“Circuits in the brain, at various levels, process this information about the smells in the environment and allow an animal to then use those stimuli to guide or direct their behavior" he said. "There’s a tremendous amount that we don’t know about that.”

The National Science Foundation. Research dollars provided by the National Science Foundation was split among 17 scientists working on three separate projects, including those participating as part of the federal BRAIN initiative, a program aimed to uncover the largely unknown functions of the brain.

Urban will be working with Bard Ermentrout, a professor of mathematics at Pitt, to study olfactory navigation.

They plan to monitor the methods of scent detection in mice and how it translates to behavior, then create a computational model of both the neurological activity within the brain and its subsequent behavior.

Rsearchers ultimately hope to open the door for artificial chemical detection systems. This will have the potential to impact law enforcement and military security, Urban said. 

“We imagine this informing the construction of devices or even odor detecting, navigating robots. You can imagine a mine-sweeping robot, for example. If it could detect explosives and identify, mark, or even uncover land mines,” he said.

The nose is an important indicator of a person’s overall health, he said. And while animals are effective in scent detection and tracking, Urban said his hope is to create an artificial device that will not require food, training or motivation.

“We have heat sensing cameras and all kinds of things, for example, in the case of tracking a fugitive… But we don’t have an artificial bloodhound that goes out and detects the odor and tracks a lost child in this way,” Urban said.  

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