Sense of smell: characteristics and function

Human beings are living beings and, as such, we must fulfill three basic functions: nutrition, relationship and reproduction. And when it comes to relationship, evolution has endowed us (and other animals) with all five senses.

These senses are components of the nervous system and allow us to capture stimuli from the environment to respond appropriately to what is happening around us. And, as we well know, these senses are taste, sight, touch, hearing and, of course, smell. And today we will stop at the latter.

It is estimated that humans we are capable of detecting about 10,000 different smells, but there are studies that indicate that this value could be much higher. Be that as it may and taking into account that our sense of smell is not as developed as in other animals, it is still an incredible feat of evolution.

In today's article, then, we will analyze the biological bases of smell. What role does the nose play? How do you capture odors? How do you convert chemical information into an assimilable nerve signal for the brain? What structures trap volatile molecules? What evolutionary function does it have? We will answer these and many other questions below.

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    What is the sense of smell?

    The senses are the set of neurological processes that allow us to perceive stimuli from the external environment, that is, to capture information about what is happening around us to develop physiological responses according to it.

    These senses, then, are born from the interconnection of neurons, establishing a bridge between the sensory organs and the brain, which will receive the nervous information and process it to give rise to the experimentation of the sensation itself.

    Therefore, each sensory organ is specialized in the development of a sense, since each of them is capable of converting information from the environment into an electrical impulse that can travel through the nervous system.

    In this sense (pun intended), the sense of smell is one that, being housed in the nose, allows us to transform the chemical information of volatile compounds into a nervous signal that will reach the brain, where it will be transformed into the experimentation of a specific smell.

    These volatile compounds are chemical substances that are transported by the air and that, in addition to being released by all those odorants, can reach the nose and be trapped by the structures that, as we will see, are responsible for developing the sense of smell.

    This is possible thanks to the presence, in the mucosa of the nose, of between 20 and 30 million olfactory cells, which allow us to perceive an infinity of smells and aromatic nuances. It is, therefore, a very useful sense at an evolutionary level, since it allows us to detect dangers (such as a gas leak), analyze the quality of a food, relate smells with memories, analyze the humidity level and, despite that there is still much controversy regarding its extrapolation to humans, detecting pheromones.

    Be that as it may, the truth is that we are facing a sense that allows us to detect volatile substances in the air and convert this information into odors, something that is completely part of our life and that, in addition, is closely related to the sense of taste. when it comes to flavor experimentation.

    How does the sense of smell work?

    The summary of its operation is very simple: olfactory cells in the nose convert chemical information from volatile substances into nerve signals that travel to the brain, the organ that will decode these electrical impulses and process them in order to make us experience the smell in question.

    Now, as it happens with all those fields of study of neurology, the biological bases are much more complicated. Therefore, below we will explain the operation of the sense of smell in a clear and simple way without, obviously, leaving us important information along the way.

    Therefore, we will divide its operation into two phases. The first, which takes place in the nose, is based on how this organ converts chemical information into a nerve signal. And the second, in how these electrical signals travel to the brain and are processed in the central nervous system. Let's go there.

    1. The chemical information of volatile substances is converted into electrical signals

    What we interpret as smells are nothing more than volatile chemicals that certain objects release into the atmosphere and that we put into our nostrils when we breathe in air. It is then the brain that experiences the sensation.

    But to get to this, we must first encode the chemical information of these substances into nerve impulses that finally reach the brain. But let's go step by step. And it is that to understand how smell works, you have to undertake a journey through the nose.

    The nose is a more complex organ at an anatomical and physiological level than it seems, as it is made up of different structures. We will focus only on those directly involved in odor experimentation.

    When an odorous object releases volatile, water-soluble molecules into the air (as we shall see, this is important) we may inhale them. When this happens, we are putting airborne chemicals into our nostrils.

    But how do we capture these volatile molecules? In the upper part of the nasal cavity we have what is known as yellow pituitary, a mucous membrane that acts as an olfactory area. In fact, the mechanical action of sniffing drives the air towards that region, since under normal conditions it circulates through the lower part (the red pituitary), which has the function of heating, filtering and moistening the air before it passes into the pharynx.

    But let's get back to this yellow pituitary. As we have said, it is the only region of the body involved in the sense of smell and is found in the upper part of the nostrils. And if it is involved in smell, it is because olfactory cells are found in this mucosa.

    These olfactory cells are specialized neurons for the sense of smell. They have receptors to which these volatile molecules bind And, depending on the chemical structure of these substances, these neuronal receptors will be excited in one way or another.

    That is, depending on how the substance fits and what its chemical nature is, they will generate a specific nerve signal where the chemical information will be encoded. Thanks to these olfactory cells, of which we have between 20 and 30 million in our nose, we transform chemical information into electrical information.

    What we mentioned before that it is important that the chemical substances detected are, in addition to being volatile, soluble in water, is because they must be able to be diluted in the mucosa of the pituitary, because through it and by the action of the cilia (microscopic extensions olfactory sensory cells), will be presented to neuronal receptors.

    In short, volatile chemicals reach the yellow pituitary, a region at the top of the nostrils where olfactory cells are found. These have receptors that, thanks to the mechanical action of the cilia, capture the molecules and translate their chemical information into a nerve signal that can already be processed by the brain to experience the smell in question.

    2. Nervous information is decoded in the brain to experience smell

    It is useless that the olfactory cells of the yellow pituitary have captured the volatile molecules and have converted the information of their chemical structure into a nerve signal without a neurological mechanism that allows the arrival of this electrical impulse to the brain.

    And this is where the synapse comes into play. The synapse is a neural process that allows neurons to communicate with each other through the "highways" of the nervous system. In his own way, of course. In this sense, the first olfactory cell that has been activated after the conversion of chemical information into a nerve signal has to get the next neuron in the network to activate. And so on millions of times until reaching the brain.

    To get the electrical impulse to jump from neuron to neuron without losing absolutely nothing of information, the synapse takes place, which it is based, in short, on the release of neurotransmitters by one neuron so that the next one in the network, by absorbing them, knows exactly how it has to be electrically charged.

    In this way, each neuron in the network generates an electrical signal that is the same as the one the previous one had. Thanks to this complex process, nerve impulses remain unchanged from the moment they are generated in the sensory organs until they reach the brain and, in addition, it allows electrical signals travel through the nervous system at over 360 km / h.

    Therefore, as with the rest of the body's senses, electrical information from the sense of smell reaches the brain through a process of synapses. In any case, this sense of smell obviously has its peculiarities.

    The electrical information from the millions of olfactory cells converges in what is known as the olfactory nerve. There is one in each nostril. Thus, both olfactory nerves also converge in what is known as the olfactory bulb.

    This olfactory bulb is one of the 12 cranial nerves, which means that it is a set of neurons that conducts electrical information directly to the brain, without first passing through the spinal cord.

    Therefore, this olfactory bulb collects electrical information from all olfactory cells and, thanks to a process of synapses, it moves along the neural highway until it reaches the brain. Once there, through processes that we still do not understand, this organ is capable of decoding electrical information and allowing us to experiment with the smell itself.

    Like all the senses, smell is born in the brain. The practically infinite nuances of odors that we can feel are due to the action of this organ. And it is that smells only exist in our brain.

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