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U of U Health Joins Research Network Seeking to Unravel Our Sense of Smell

boy smelling herb

Author: Doug Dollemore

As part of the Odor2Action Network, a new National Science Foundation initiative, University of Utah Health scientists will hone in on how odors are processed in the brain. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Of all of our senses, smell is the least understood. To rectify that, the National Science Foundation recently formed an international research network of scientists co-led by Matt Wachowiak, Ph.D., a brain investigator at University of Utah Health. The goal of the groundbreaking Odor2Action network is to determine how animals use information from odors to guide their behavior.

The $20.2 million, five-year project could have far-ranging implications for understanding how the human brain works, according to Wachowiak. The network includes researchers from 16 major institutions worldwide.

“Smell is one of the main sensory drivers of behavior in animals, including humans,” Wachowiak says. “It helps animals make decisions and process information so they can find food, avoid predators, and locate mates. Determining how the brain encodes and deciphers this information could be transformational in many ways.”

Odor2Action will examine all of the steps in this process, from encoding in the brain to activation of motor circuits that lead to behavioral responses in animals. The network is comprised of three interdisciplinary research groups (IRGs). The first, which includes Wachowiak’s team, will focus on theoretical mathematics and mapping to better understand how characteristics of smells are encoded in the brain.

As part of that effort, Wachowiak and his U of U Health colleagues will produce brain images of mice as they are exposed to certain smells. They hope this research will help them trace individual chemicals to particular receptors in the brain.

The second IRG will focus on how encoded odors produce a behavioral response. The third group will investigate how this behavioral response alters an animal’s perception of the odor it senses. The researchers hope that working with these model species, ranging from fruit flies to mice, will allow them to unravel some of the same steps that occur in humans.

Better understanding of how smells and odors are processed in the brain could also lead to better replication of odor-based searches with machines, Wachowiak says. It could, for instance, allow robots to take over some hazardous duties like detecting chemical weapons and bombs from humans or dogs.

In addition to U of U Health, other institutions participating in Odor2Action include the University of Colorado, Caltech, Penn State University, Duke University, Salk Institute, University of Pittsburgh, NYU School of Medicine, McGill University, Scripps Research, Arizona State University, Francis Crick Institute, University of Hertfordshire, Yale University, and Weill Cornell.

Odor2Action is part of the NSF’s Next Generation Networks for Neuroscience (NeuroNex) Program, which supports the development of new tools and theories to solve the mysteries of the brain.

“The most important questions in neuroscience are so complex they require large teams of researchers with complementary expertise,” said Joanne Tornow, NSF assistant director for Biological Sciences, in a statement announcing the establishment of Odor2Action and three other research networks. “These awards will help us conquer those grand challenges and accelerate profound discoveries about how our brains work.”

In addition to the NSF, Odor2Action is supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the UK Research & Innovation Medical Research Council.