Research area: neuroscience

Olfactory perception of chemically diverse molecules

Created on 23rd April 2016

Andreas Keller; Leslie B Vosshall;

Background Understanding the relationship between a stimulus and how it is perceived reveals fundamental principles about the mechanisms of sensory perception. While this stimulus-percept problem is mostly understood for color vision and tone perception, it is not currently possible to predict how a given molecule smells. While there has been some progress in predicting the pleasantness and intensity of an odor, perceptual data for a larger number of diverse molecules are needed to improve current predictions. Towards this goal, we tested the olfactory perception of 480 structurally and perceptually diverse molecules at two concentrations using a panel of 55 healthy human subjects. Results For each stimulus, we collected data on perceived intensity, pleasantness, and familiarity. In addition, subjects were asked to apply 20 semantic odor quality descriptors to these stimuli, and were offered the option to describe the smell in their own words. Using this dataset, we replicated several previous correlations between molecular features of the stimulus and olfactory perception. The number of sulfur atoms in a molecule was highly correlated with the descriptors garlic, fish, decayed, and large and structurally complex molecules were perceived to be more pleasant. We discovered a number of strong correlations in intensity perception between molecules, which suggests a shared mechanism for perceiving these molecules. We show that familiarity had a strong effect on the ability of subjects to describe a smell. Many subjects used commercial products to describe familiar odors, highlighting the role of prior experience in biasing verbal report of perceived smells. Nonspecific descriptors like chemical were applied frequently to unfamiliar smells, and unfamiliar odors were generally rated as neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Conclusions We present a very large psychophysical dataset and use this to correlate molecular features of a stimulus to olfactory percept. Our work reveals robust correlations between molecular features and perceptual qualities, and highlights the dominant role of familiarity and experience in assigning verbal descriptors to smells.

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