Summary: Odor information in the brain is unrelated to perception during the early stages of being processed, but when perception later occurred, unpleasant odors were processed more quickly than pleasant odors.
Source: University of Tokyo
Does the smell of a warm cup of coffee help you start your day the right way? Or can you not stand the strong, heady stuff?
According to new research, how quickly your brain processes the smell of your morning beverage might depend on whether you think that odor is pleasant or not.
A team at the University of Tokyo created a special device that can deliver 10 diverse odors in a way that is accurate and timely. The odors were administered to participants who rated their pleasantness while wearing noninvasive scalp-recorded electroencephalogram (EEG) caps, which record signals inside the brain.
The team was then able to process the EEG data using machine learning-based computer analysis, to see when and where the range of odors was processed in the brain with high temporal resolution for the first time.
“We were surprised that we could detect signals from presented odors from very early EEG responses, as quickly as 100 milliseconds after odor onset, suggesting that representation of odor information in the brain occurs rapidly,” said doctoral student Mugihiko Kato from the Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Tokyo.
Detection of odor by the brain occurred before the odor was consciously perceived by the participant, which didn’t happen until several hundred milliseconds later.
“Our study showed that different aspects of perception, in particular odor pleasantness, unpleasantness and quality, emerged through different spatial and temporal cortical processing,” said Kato.
“The representation of unpleasantness in the brain emerged earlier than pleasantness and perceived quality,” said Project Associate Professor Masako Okamoto, also from the Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
When unpleasant odors (such as rotten and rancid smells) were administered, participants’ brains could differentiate them from neutral or pleasant odors as early as 300 milliseconds after onset.
However, representation of pleasant odors (such as floral and fruity smells) in the brain didn’t occur until 500 milliseconds onwards, around the same time as when the quality of the odor was also represented. From 600-850 milliseconds after odor onset, significant areas of the brain involved in emotional, semantic (language) and memory processing then became most involved.
The earlier perception of unpleasant odors may be an early warning system against potential dangers.
“The way each sensory system recruits the central nervous system differs across the sensory modalities (smell, light, sound, taste, pressure and temperature). Elucidating when and where in the brain olfactory (smell) perception emerges helps us to understand how the olfactory system works,” said Okamoto.
“We also feel that our study has broader methodological implications. For example, it was not known that scalp-recorded EEG would allow us to assess representation of odors from time periods as early as 100 milliseconds.”
This high temporal resolution imaging of how our brains process odors may be a stepping stone towards better understanding the mechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases in future, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, in which a dysfunction in the sense of smell is an early warning sign. The team is interested in exploring several further research avenues.
“In our daily life, odors are perceived along with other sensory information like vision, and each sense influences the perception of the other,” said Kato.
“Although we presented olfactory stimuli alone in the current study, we think that analyzing brain activity under more natural conditions, such as presenting odors with a movie, is important.” Perhaps Smell-O-Vision might yet make a comeback?
Funding: This work was supported by the Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research on Innovative Areas from Japan Society for the Promotion of Science to M.O. (18H04998 and 21H05808) and JST-Mirai program to K.T. (JPMJMI17DC and JPMJMI19D1).
Spatiotemporal dynamics of odor representations in the human brain revealed by EEG decoding
How the human brain translates olfactory inputs into diverse perceptions, from pleasurable floral smells to sickening smells of decay, is one of the fundamental questions in olfaction.
To examine how different aspects of olfactory perception emerge in space and time in the human brain, we performed time-resolved multivariate pattern analysis of scalp-recorded electroencephalogram responses to 10 perceptually diverse odors and associated the resulting decoding accuracies with perception and source activities.
Mean decoding accuracies of odors exceeded the chance level 100 ms after odor onset and reached maxima at 350 ms. The result suggests that the neural representations of individual odors were maximally separated at 350 ms.
Perceptual representations emerged following the decoding peak: unipolar unpleasantness (neutral to unpleasant) from 300 ms, and pleasantness (neutral to pleasant) and perceptual quality (applicability to verbal descriptors such as “fruity” or “flowery”) from 500 ms after odor onset, with all these perceptual representations reaching their maxima after 600 ms.
A source estimation showed that the areas representing the odor information, estimated based on the decoding accuracies, were localized in and around the primary and secondary olfactory areas at 100 to 350 ms after odor onset.
Odor representations then expanded into larger areas associated with emotional, semantic, and memory processing, with the activities of these later areas being significantly associated with perception.
These results suggest that initial odor information coded in the olfactory areas (<350 ms) evolves into their perceptual realizations (300 to >600 ms) through computations in widely distributed cortical regions, with different perceptual aspects having different spatiotemporal dynamics.