Our brain may navigate using just smells

The mammalian brain can form a map of its surroundings based solely on smells, a study has found.

Published: 27th February 2018 01:54 PM  |   Last Updated: 27th February 2018 01:54 PM   |  A+A-

brain, lesion, electricity, intelligence,

Representational image.

By PTI

WASHINGTON: The mammalian brain can form a map of its surroundings based solely on smells, a study has found.

Researchers at Northwestern University in the US have developed a new "smell virtual landscape" that enables the study of how smells engage the brain's navigation system.

The olfactory-based virtual reality system could lead to a fuller understanding of odour-guided navigation and explain why mammals have an aversion to unpleasant odours, an attraction to pheromones and an innate preference to one odour over another, researchers said.

The system could also help tech developers incorporate smell into current virtual reality systems to give users a more multi-sensory experience, they said.

"We have invented what we jokingly call a 'smellovision,'" said Daniel A Dombeck from Northwestern University.

"It is the world's first method to control odourant concentrations rapidly in space for mammals as they move around," said Dombeck, who led the study published in the journal Nature Communications.

Researchers have long known that odours can guide animals' behaviours.

However, studying this phenomenon has been difficult because odours are nearly impossible to control as they naturally travel and diffuse in the air.

By using a virtual reality system made of smells instead of audio and visuals, Dombeck and graduate student Brad Radvansky created a landscape in which smells can be controlled and maintained.

"Imagine a room in which each position is defined by a unique smell profile," Radvansky said.

"And imagine that this profile is maintained no matter how much time elapses or how fast you move through the room," he said.

That is exactly what Dombeck's team developed, using mice in their study.

Aided by a predictive algorithm that determined precise timing and distributions, the airflow system pumped scents - such as bubblegum, pine and a sour smell - past the mouse's nose to create a virtual room.

Mice first explored the virtual environment through both visual and olfactory cues.

Researchers then shut off the visual virtual reality system, forcing the mice to navigate the room in total darkness based on olfactory cues alone.

The mice did not show a decrease in performance.

Instead, the study indicated that moving through a smell landscape engages the brain's spatial mapping mechanisms.

Not only can the platform help researchers learn more about how the brain processes and uses smells, it could also lay the groundwork for human applications.

"Development of virtual reality technology has mainly focused on vision and sound," Dombeck said.

"It is likely that our technology will eventually be incorporated into commercial virtual reality systems to create a more immersive multisensory experience for humans," he said.

Stay up to date on all the latest Health news with The New Indian Express App. Download now
(Get the news that matters from New Indian Express on WhatsApp. Click this link and hit 'Click to Subscribe'. Follow the instructions after that.)

Comments

Disclaimer : We respect your thoughts and views! But we need to be judicious while moderating your comments. All the comments will be moderated by the newindianexpress.com editorial. Abstain from posting comments that are obscene, defamatory or inflammatory, and do not indulge in personal attacks. Try to avoid outside hyperlinks inside the comment. Help us delete comments that do not follow these guidelines.

The views expressed in comments published on newindianexpress.com are those of the comment writers alone. They do not represent the views or opinions of newindianexpress.com or its staff, nor do they represent the views or opinions of The New Indian Express Group, or any entity of, or affiliated with, The New Indian Express Group. newindianexpress.com reserves the right to take any or all comments down at any time.

flipboard facebook twitter whatsapp