Past Projects (Sobel lab)

Olfactory stimulus acquisition is perfectly synchronized with inhalation, which tunes neuronal ensembles for incoming information. Because olfaction is an ancient sensory system that provided a template for brain evolution, we hypothesized that this link persisted, and therefore nasal inhalations may also tune the brain for acquisition of non-olfactory information. To test this, we measured nasal airflow and electroencephalography during various non-olfactory cognitive tasks. We observed that participants spontaneously inhale at non-olfactory cognitive task onset and that such inhalations shift brain functional network architecture. Concentrating on visuospatial perception, we observed that nasal inhalation drove increased task-related brain activity in specific task-related brain regions and resulted in improved performance accuracy in the visuospatial task. Thus, mental processes with no link to olfaction are nevertheless phase-locked with nasal inhalation, consistent with the notion of an olfaction-based template in the evolution of human brain function.


The contribution of temporal coding to odor coding and odor perception in humans

Whether neurons encode information through their spike rates, their activity times or both is an ongoing debate in systems neuroscience. Here, we tested whether humans can discriminate between a pair of temporal odor mixtures (TOMs) composed of the same two components delivered in rapid succession in either one temporal order or its reverse. These TOMs presumably activate the same olfactory neurons but at different times and thus differ mainly in the time of neuron activation. We found that most participants could hardly discriminate between TOMs, although they easily discriminated between a TOM and one of its components. By contrast, participants succeeded in discriminating between the TOMs when they were notified of their successive nature in advance. We thus suggest that the time of glomerulus activation can be exploited to extract odor-related information, although it does not change the odor perception substantially, as should be expected from an odor code per se.


Are humans constantly but subconsciously smelling themselves?

All primates, including humans, engage in self-face-touching at very high frequency. The functional purpose or antecedents of this behaviour remain unclear. In this hybrid review, we put forth the hypothesis that self-face-touching subserves self-smelling. We first review data implying that humans touch their faces at very high frequency. We then detail evidence from the one study that implicated an olfactory origin for this behaviour: This evidence consists of significantly increased nasal inhalation concurrent with self-face-touching, and predictable increases or decreases in self-face-touching as a function of subliminal odourant tainting. Although we speculate that self-smelling through self-face-touching is largely an unconscious act, we note that in addition, humans also consciously smell themselves at high frequency. To verify this added statement, we administered an online self-report questionnaire. Upon being asked, approximately 94% of approximately 400 respondents acknowledged engaging in smelling themselves. Paradoxically, we observe that although this very prevalent behaviour of self-smelling is of concern to individuals, especially to parents of children overtly exhibiting self-smelling, the behaviour has nearly no traction in the medical or psychological literature. We suggest psychological and cultural explanations for this paradox, and end in suggesting that human self-smelling become a formal topic of investigation in the study of human social olfaction.



Most forms of suprathreshold sensory stimulation perturb sleep. In contrast, presentation of pure olfactory or mild trigeminal odorants does not lead to behavioral or physiological arousal. In fact, some odors promote objective and subjective measures of sleep quality in humans and rodents. The brain mechanisms underlying these sleep-protective properties of olfaction remain unclear. Slow oscillations in the electroencephalogram (EEG) are a marker of deep sleep, and K complexes (KCs) are an EEG marker of cortical response to sensory interference. We therefore hypothesized that odorants presented during sleep will increase power in slow EEG oscillations. Moreover, given that odorants do not drive sleep interruption, we hypothesized that unlike other sensory stimuli odorants would not drive KCs. To test these hypotheses we used polysomnography to measure sleep in 34 healthy subjects (19 women, 15 men; mean age 26.5 ± 2.5 yr) who were repeatedly presented with odor stimuli via a computer-controlled air-dilution olfactometer over the course of a single night. Each participant was exposed to one of four odorants, lavender oil (n = 13), vetiver oil (n = 5), vanillin (n = 12), or ammonium sulfide (n = 4), for durations of 5, 10, and 20 s every 9–15 min. Consistent with our hypotheses, we found that odor presentation during sleep enhanced the power of delta (0.5–4 Hz) and slow spindle (9–12 Hz) frequencies during non-rapid eye movement sleep. The increase was proportionate to odor duration. In addition, odor presentation did not modulate the occurrence of KCs. These findings imply a sleep-promoting olfactory mechanism that may deepen sleep through driving increased slow-frequency oscillations.