Smell and Situation Entangled in Our Brains

On a winter’s evening, the smell of wood smoke from a chimney can be pleasant, even comforting. Encountered inside a house in July, the smell of burning wood is alarming. The same sensory signal may have widely varying implications depending on the situation.

A team of Cornell researchers led by Christiane Linster, Neurobiology and Behavior, is investigating neurological connections that link smell with non-olfactory contextual information such as location. The olfactory bulb is one of the first structures to respond to smell-related stimuli, and directly behind it is the anterior olfactory nucleus (AON). The AON is not well understood, but preliminary evidence suggests that it may integrate incoming signals to the olfactory bulb with information from the ventral hippocampus (vHC), a brain structure known to relay task-relevant spatial information to other brain systems. This research seeks to establish whether direct projections from the vHC to the AON play a dominant role in the integration of contextual and olfactory information, and whether the AON embeds multisensory contextual information from the vHC into early-stage odor representations.

This project explores the influence of physical and behavioral situations on contextually dependent olfactory decision-making tasks. The direct integration of context into early sensory signals suggests a deep entanglement of context and basic sensory perceptions in the brain. Malfunctions of these interactions may lead to maladaptive behaviors in patients with severe trauma or other mental health conditions. The results from this research could inform mental health therapies, such as desensitization strategies for treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

NIH Award Number: 1R01DC019124-01A1

Cornell Researchers

Funding Received

$3.1 Million spanning 5 years