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The Art of Smell

This is The Discovery Files, from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Imagine if the sense of smell was a work of art!

Perhaps, the brain processes smell like a camera, capturing a snapshot of the essence of smell in the moment, or a symphony, an ensemble of diverse brain cells turning on and off, working together, to capture the scent.

Supported in part by NSF, a research team at the University of Rochester has been exploring how the brain adapts in its processes to interpret information it receives about chemical sensations.

Using computer simulations, the scientists developed a model to replicate the workings of the brain’s early olfactory system, the network it uses to smell.

They identified a specific set of connections that play an essential role in carrying impulses from other parts of the central nervous system to the early sensory regions of the brain.

In one state, the connections make the system act like a camera, capturing the patterns of activity in a single moment of time, to represent the essential features of an odor.

In another state, the brain cells classified the smell by keeping track of the evolving patterns of activity over time, like a symphony, with the cells, like musical notes, turning on and off.

The mathematical models the team used could also help build brain-inspired artificial computing systems.

The next time you sit at the table and eye a delicious meal you might understand better why it smells like a work of art.

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“The discovery files” covers projects funded by the government’s National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research — brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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