Brain responses to odor mixtures with sub-threshold components

  • Hummel T
  • Olgun S
  • Gerber J
  • et al.
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Although most odorants we encounter in daily life are mixtures of several chemical substances, we still lack significant information on how we perceive and how the brain processes mixtures of odorants. We aimed to investigate the processing of odor mixtures using behavioral measures and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The odor mixture contained a target odor (ambroxan) in a concentration at which it could be perceived by half of the subjects (sensitive group); the other half could not perceive the odor (insensitive group). In line with previous findings on multi-component odor mixtures, both groups of subjects were not able to distinguish a complex odor mixture containing or not containing the target odor. However, sensitive subjects had stronger activations than insensitive subjects in chemosensory processing areas such as the insula when exposed to the mixture containing the target odor. Furthermore, the sensitive group exhibited larger brain activations when presented with the odor mixture containing the target odor compared to the odor mixture without the target odor; this difference was smaller, though present for the insensitive group. In conclusion, we show that a target odor presented within a mixture of odors can influence brain activations although on a psychophysical level subjects are not able to distinguish the mixture with and without the target. On the practical side these results suggest that the addition of a certain compound to a mixture of odors may not be detected on a cognitive level; however, this additional odor may significantly change the cerebral processing of this mixture. In this context, FMRI offers unique possibilities to look at the subliminal effects of odors.




Hummel, T., Olgun, S., Gerber, J., Huchel, U., & Frasnelli, J. (2013). Brain responses to odor mixtures with sub-threshold components. Frontiers in Psychology, 4.

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