Our Complex and Fascinating Olfactory System

The New York Times’s Smell Turns Up in Unexpected Places is one of the most fascinating articles I’ve read lately. Scientific research conducted over the last decade has revealed that odor receptors can be found not only in the nose, but in our skin, heart, kidneys and other organs. What is more, they aid various physiological functions, such as helping tissues heal or acting as a safety switch against poisonous compounds. Whether we will see the development of scent based medicine is still under debate, but it’s beyond doubt that our olfactory system has an incredible and still poorly understood potential.

“Over the last decade or so, scientists have discovered that odor receptors are not solely confined to the nose, but found throughout body — in the liver, the heart, the kidneys and even sperm — where they play a pivotal role in a host of physiological functions.

Now, a team of biologists at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany has found that our skin is bristling with olfactory receptors. “More than 15 of the olfactory receptors that exist in the nose are also found in human skin cells,” said the lead researcher, Dr. Hanns Hatt. Not only that, but exposing one of these receptors (colorfully named OR2AT4) to a synthetic sandalwood odor known as Sandalore sets off a cascade of molecular signals that appears to induce healing in injured tissue. Read the rest.

Thank you to Susan, Amanda and L for a link.

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51 Comments

  • Michaela: Absolutely fascinating! Thank you!
    Scent based medicine is a SF idea now, but it’s worth studying and trying. Sandalwood, lily of the valley, rose, violet scents to heal… A whole new world opens. Who would have imagined, not more than 20 years ago, that we can ‘smell’ with the skin?!
    The idea of healing is not totally new, though. If I remember well, there are legends stating that during difficult times of plague in Europe, the perfumers were rarely struck. Probably handling aroma materials helped a lot. October 15, 2014 at 9:18am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m not sure how exactly the scent based medicine would have to be delivered to work, but it’s still fascinating. All I know is that smelling certain things in the air or on my skin really improves my mood and makes my day better. October 15, 2014 at 11:34am Reply

  • Sailinder Singh: Hi Victoria,

    You have one of the finest perfume blogs, and I really enjoy your posts!
    Thanks for your beautiful blog, and also thanks for this very interesting article.

    When I read this:
    “The same year, Grace Pavlath, a biologist at Emory University, published a study on olfactory receptors in skeletal muscles. She found that bathing the receptors in Lyral, a synthetic fragrance redolent of lily of the valley, promoted the regeneration of muscle tissue. Blocking these receptors (by neutralizing the genes that code for them), on the other hand, was found to inhibit muscular regeneration, suggesting that odor receptors are a necessary component of the intricate biochemical signaling system that causes stem cells to morph into muscles cells and replace damaged tissue.”

    It reminded me of this article from July 7th 2014:

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/07/us-perfume-regulation-insight-idUSKBN0FC0EB20140707

    It says;
    “The European Commission is also banning a synthetic molecule called HICC, or lyral, which replicates the smell of lily of the valley. It too can cause dermatitis in allergy sufferers.”

    Perhaps in the future, progressive insight about the human olfactory system might rehabilitate several natural and synthetic fragrance ingredients, and discontinue their banishment.

    Kind regards,
    Sailinder October 15, 2014 at 9:38am Reply

    • Michaela: Let’s hope so! This future seems far away, but, if some rehabilitation is going to take place, it’s still good.

      The article you pointed is excellent.

      Bitter smile: ‘ “Big brands tell me: replace this and that and make sure it smells the same and costs the same to produce,” Roucel said. ‘
      Sure… October 15, 2014 at 10:06am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Sailinder. I was also thinking of this nonsensical Lyral ban, which is supported by such flimsy evidence. Frankly, ask 5 toxicologists whether something is or not safe and they will come up with 5 different answers. This area of science is hardly black and white, and the question of methodology is what the IFRA, EU Commission and some other bodies are struggling with. October 15, 2014 at 11:37am Reply

      • Lindaloo: Yes, reading the part about Lyral was very frustrating. I find lily of the valley (real flowers and the synthetic source in perfumes) very uplifting, and it’s not as if one can buy lily of the valley essential oil. Fortunately I have a 100 ml of Gucci Envy and various bits and bobs of Yardley and Crabtree & Evelyn LOTVs.

        And I guess my Sandalore supply is through my Samsara — at least I understand it was overdosed with synthetic sandalwood as well as the real stuff when it was created.

        I feel like spamming IFRA and the EU Commission with links to the NYT article. October 15, 2014 at 7:29pm Reply

        • Victoria: It’s hard to do a decent lily of the valley without some of the materials that are now banned or restricted. Although I recently smelled Yves Rocher Lily of the Valley, and it’s very good. Try it, if you have a chance. October 16, 2014 at 10:39am Reply

  • Aurora: To think that we have these olfactory receptors in so many places of our body and that it is now a promising field for medicine. Although the delivery system for synthetic sandalwood and such would more likely come through injections and pills and less by delecting ourselves with wonderful scents.

    What an interesting article thank you so much for noticing and posting it. October 15, 2014 at 10:32am Reply

    • Victoria: Fascinating, isn’t it! I just love cool science facts like these. 🙂 October 15, 2014 at 11:41am Reply

  • limegreen: It’s always nice when science starts to catch up with what we sort of “feel” already.
    (Explains my lily-of-the-valley cravings in the last year or so — my muscles needed regenerating!)
    I love how “basil, thyme, and rosemary” are mentioned as the researcher’s favorite scents! October 15, 2014 at 10:59am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for sending me the link! I also loved that line in the article. 🙂 October 15, 2014 at 11:42am Reply

  • Annette: The article is really fascinating! I had no idea we have olfactory receptors in so many parts of our bodies. Funny thing is that the first thought which came to my mind was: oh, so from now on I can banish all the remnants of any guilt inducing feelings about my “frivolous” hobby with hard scientific evidence. When I sniff perfume I prolong my life! 🙂 October 15, 2014 at 11:38am Reply

    • Victoria: My thoughts exactly! Things that make us happy and improve the quality of our life are not frivolous at all. They are necessary. October 15, 2014 at 11:46am Reply

      • Annette: Ha! And here’s another uplifting thought: when I wear perfume I contribute to the general wellbeing of humankind. So – dear fragrant people – we are literally saving lives! October 15, 2014 at 1:47pm Reply

      • Natalia: This is wonderful. I agree completely. Things that makes us happy gives us dignity that suffering of daily life steals from us. October 15, 2014 at 6:13pm Reply

        • Victoria: You put it so beautifully! October 16, 2014 at 10:36am Reply

  • solanace: This is such an interesting read, thank you for the link. It seems that aromatherapy will start getting more attention from mainstream research in the future, which sounds like great news, for everybody’s health and for perfume lovers, too! October 15, 2014 at 1:29pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m not sure if the benefit is derived simply from smelling; maybe, as Aurora said, from the aroma-molecules being delivered in another way. But it would be interesting to see how this discovery shapes the approach to scents overall. October 16, 2014 at 10:17am Reply

  • Figuier: This puts a whole new spin on the idea of aromatherapy! In fact, the article has got me genuinely excited, and I haven’t yet processed all the ideas it presents, or my responses to them. So incredible that there are smell receptors in organs other than the nose and especially that, because of those receptors, some chemicals that we know by smell have health benefits. October 15, 2014 at 1:56pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it is amazing! And it is amazing how little understood the olfactory system still remains.

      Also, I like the implication of this article that synthetic doesn’t mean bad. October 16, 2014 at 10:19am Reply

  • angeldiva: What wonderful information! So, if I wanted to combine the strongest Sandalwood benefit with the most potent Lilly Of The Valley scent- what perfume would I obtain?

    Peace October 15, 2014 at 4:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: I doubt that just wearing a perfume will give that effect, but as for sandalwood-lily of the valley perfume, maybe, Diorissimo? October 16, 2014 at 10:26am Reply

  • rainboweyes: What a groundbreaking theory! I can’t wait to find out what further research on this will reveal in the future.
    I also found these two interesting articles on BBC:

    http://www.bbc.com/news/health-29361351
    http://www.bbc.com/news/health-29441323 October 15, 2014 at 4:11pm Reply

    • Michaela: The BBC articles are very interesting. Thank you.
      I was especially impressed by losing smell as a risk factor. As long as people can work on improving their sense of smell, I think these is not always irreversible, some people have chances to regain their smell. October 16, 2014 at 3:58am Reply

    • Victoria: Interesting articles, thank you! Makes me curious to follow further developments. October 16, 2014 at 10:27am Reply

  • Natalia: Since the most importante person in my life died 3 weeks ago the only thing that consoles me are perfumes. I bought 3 that I found particularly enveloping ánd have been drenching myself in them all day long. Its helping a lot.
    So to me, perfumes heal. And it has been like this since Im a child. October 15, 2014 at 6:10pm Reply

    • angeldiva: Natalia, So sorry for your loss… Good Vibrations And Healing Scents ascending!
      Peace October 15, 2014 at 7:14pm Reply

    • Michaela: I’m so sorry… Nothing can compensate this loss, but I trust perfumes help you live with it and fight depression. October 16, 2014 at 3:54am Reply

    • Solanace: Oh, I’m sorry! October 16, 2014 at 4:41am Reply

    • Aurora: Natalia I am so sorry to read about your loss.

      Keep on trying and doing the things that bring you some comfort, I am glad and not at all surprised that you are finding solace in perfumes. October 16, 2014 at 5:51am Reply

    • Rachel: I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sending you a big hug. I got into perfume when I was struggling with depression and smelling nice things helped me very much. October 16, 2014 at 5:57am Reply

    • Victoria: My condolences to you, Natalia. The sense of loss is always so devastating, and while perfume is such a small thing, it can help you cope. When my father passed away, I remember dealing with it by cooking his favorite dishes and by wearing perfume (he liked fragrances very much). October 16, 2014 at 10:35am Reply

    • bregje: So sorry for your loss…

      I lost the most important person in my life 2 years ago and as i was reading this article i thought about that too.
      Because i can still ‘remember’ how they smelled.
      So when i read that there are odor receptors in the heart i thought:that makes sense!

      I wish you all the strenght and love you need October 16, 2014 at 8:10pm Reply

    • Natalia: I am very touched by all the messages you sent, thank you very much. It really warmed my heart! God bless. October 18, 2014 at 9:36am Reply

  • Karen: Glad others saw this! October 15, 2014 at 9:45pm Reply

  • iodine: Very interesting indeed, thank you!
    There’s only one thing- why only synthetic molecules seem to have effect? Who’s funding these researches- aromachemical industries?! 🙂 October 16, 2014 at 11:14am Reply

    • Victoria: It makes sense, though, that the researchers would use a single molecule like Sandalore, rather than sandalwood oil. Sandalwood oil contains hundreds of components, many of which have not even been identified yet, and if one obtains a result, it would be unclear what exactly played the key role. The object of study is little researched and complex enough as it is! October 16, 2014 at 11:44am Reply

      • Karen: I was talking about this with a friend, and my guess was that it was simply to see if fragrance alone could cause the body’s reaction. Of course if you use the aromatherapy oils you would also receive other benefits but it is fascinating that just the fragrance component causes healing. October 16, 2014 at 1:32pm Reply

        • Victoria: Yes, it is hard to devise a scientific experiment using a cocktail of ingredients and know which contributed to what effect. October 16, 2014 at 2:04pm Reply

  • Hamamelis: Wonderful article Victoria, thank you and those who alerted you to it. It received a small mention in Time magazine some time ago, there the positive effect of smelling sandalwood on the immune system was highlighted. Also timely as I am beginning to recover from a very bad flue, and I found Terre d’Hermes Eau Tres Fraiche very soothing and alleviating nausea!
    What I also find so interesting (I learnt this on an excellent dogtraining course, I suppose dogs are perfumistas pur sang October 16, 2014 at 11:16am Reply

    • Victoria: Interesting! I need to check that article too. October 16, 2014 at 11:45am Reply

  • Hamamelis: Sorry my comment got eaten halfway and I sent half of it twice.
    Smell and scent are the only senses that go straight past the relay station in the brain (the thalamus) to the cortex, the others get processed first. Now it may be that scent literally also can go directly to the heart, what a wonderful idea…in any way it evokes an immediate response, and perfume may take the edges off grief, lift our spirits and even heal. The ancients surely knew some of this… October 16, 2014 at 11:27am Reply

    • Victoria: Indeed! I’m wearing Frederic Malle’s Portrait of a Lady and enjoying its dark roses and sandalwood so much. This has not been a particularly exceptional day (rather stressful, even), but I’m in a such a good, uplifted mood today. I credit Portrait of a Lady with it. October 16, 2014 at 11:48am Reply

      • Hamamelis: 🙂
        On my sample list! Have not found a rose I love…except Yves R. Moment de Bonheur which I like very much but not love. Would you recommend the current Diorissimo formulation? As it has such strong memories for me, my mother used to wear it when I was a child and I used to sneak in her bedroom and smell the bottle… October 16, 2014 at 11:57am Reply

        • Victoria: Diorissimo today is fine if you want a beautiful light floral perfume, but it doesn’t smell like it used to. My mom used to wear it too, and I have strong memories of it. October 16, 2014 at 2:03pm Reply

          • Hamamelis: Beautiful light floral sounds lovely, especially when I just learned (when this article came up in a conversation) my husband’s favourite flower scent is Lily of the Valley! I never would have known if it wasn’t for your blog…(I do know many of his favourites though, just not this one 😉 ) October 16, 2014 at 2:37pm Reply

            • Victoria: Oh, then you must give some to him on May 1st. 🙂 Is the May Day holiday celebrated in the Netherlands? October 17, 2014 at 7:43am Reply

              • Hamamelis: Yes, I must, especially because they grow plentiful in my woodland garden! We don’t have a May 1st celebration as there is always the very festive Queens day (now King’s) on 30 April and on the 5th of May there is the end of the 2nd WW to commemorate, also festive, and now more of a day to celebrate (and not take for granted) the freedom we are so privileged to have here. On the 4th of May we remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for that freedom. But on the 1st of May I will privately celebrate my love, better still, celebrate love! (do you know this wonderful Stevie Wonder song:”Love is in need of love today”? as relevant now as when he sang it in the 70s…)
                Have a lovely weekend, I hope you will have the same summery temps that are predicted here. October 17, 2014 at 8:02am Reply

                • Victoria: You too! Enjoy your weekend and some much needed sunshine!

                  Fascinating about all of these holidays and the overlaps between different historical events. October 17, 2014 at 8:24am Reply

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