Biological Machines/Sensory Systems/Olfactory System/Sensory Organs

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In vertebrates the main olfactory system detects odorants that are inhaled through the nose where they come to contact with the olfactory epithelium, which contains the olfactory receptors.

Olfactory sensitivity is directly proportional to the area in the nasal cavity near the septum reserved to the olfactory mucous membrane, which is the region where the olfactory receptor cells are located. The extent of this area is a specific between animals species. In dogs, for example, the sense of smell is highly developed and the area covered by this membrane is about 75 – 150 cm2; these animals are called macrosmatic animals. Differently in humans the olfactory mucous membrane cover an area about 3 – 5 cm2, thus they are known as microsmatic animals.

In humans there are about 10 million olfactory cells, each of which have 350 different receptor types composing the olfactory mucous membrane. The 350 different receptors are characteristic for only one odorant type. The bond with one odorant molecule starts a molecular chain reaction, which transforms the chemical perception into an electrical signal.

The electrical signal proceeds through the olfactory nerve’s axons to the olfactory bulbs. In this region there are between 1000 and 2000 glomerular cells which combine and interpret the potentials coming from different receptors. This way it is possible to unequivocally characterise e.g. the coffee aroma, which is composed by about 650 different odorants. Humans can distinguish between about 10.000 odors.

The signal then goes forth to the olfactory cortex where it will be recognized and compared with known odorants (i.e. olfactory memory) involving also an emotional response to the olfactory stimuli.

It is also interesting to note that the human genome has about 600 – 700 genes (~2% of the complete genome) specialized in characterizing the olfactory receptors, but only 350 are still used to build the olfactory system. This is a proof of the evolution change in the necessity of humans in using the olfaction.