Olfactory perception, cognition, and dysfunction in humans

Richard J. Stevenson*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    8 Citations (Scopus)


    The main functions of olfaction relate to finding food, avoiding predators and disease, and social communication. Its role in detecting food has resulted in a unique dual mode sensory system. Environmental odorants are 'smelled' via the external nostrils, while volatile chemicals in food-detected by the same receptors-arrive via the nasopharynx, contributing to flavor. This arrangement allows the brain to link the consequences of eating with a food's odor, and then later to use this information in the search for food. Recognizing an odorant-a food, mate, or predator-requires the detection of complex chemical blends against a noisy chemical background. The brain solves this problem in two ways. First, by rapid adaptation to background odorants so that new odorants stand out. Second, by pattern matching the neural representation of an odorant to prior olfactory experiences. This account is consistent with olfactory sensory physiology, anatomy, and psychology. Odor perception, and its products, may be subject to further processing-olfactory cognition. While olfactory cognition has features in common with visual or auditory cognition, several aspects are unique, and even those that are common may be instantiated in different ways. These differences can be productively used to evaluate the generality of models of cognition and consciousness. Finally, the olfactory system can breakdown, and this may be predictive of the onset of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's, as well as having prognostic value in other disorders such as schizophrenia.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)273-284
    Number of pages12
    JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - May 2013


    Dive into the research topics of 'Olfactory perception, cognition, and dysfunction in humans'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this