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Unknown Territory

Researchers have learned a lot about how the olfactory nerve cells detect odorants. However, they have not yet learned how this information is coded by the olfactory cell. Other topics of future research will be how olfactory cell signals are processed in the olfactory bulb, and how this information relates to higher brain functions and our awareness of smell.

Scientists are only beginning to understand the role that smell plays in animal, and human, behavior. The vomeronasal sense of animals is still largely not understood. Some researchers have even suggested that the human vomeronasal organ might retain some function, and that humans may have pheromones that play a role in sexual attraction and mating—although this hypothesis is very controversial.

In addition, detailed study of the biology of the olfactory system might yield gains in other fields. For instance, olfactory nerve cells are the only nerve cells that are derived from the central nervous system that can regenerate, possibly because the stress of their exposure to the outside world gives them a limited life span. Some researchers hope that studying regeneration in olfactory nerve cells or even transplanting them elsewhere in the body can lead to treatments for as yet irreversible damage to the spine and brain.



Getchel, T.V., ed. Smell and Taste in Health and Disease. New York: Raven Press, 1991.

Moller, Aage R. Sensory Systems: Anatomy and Physiology. New York: Academic Press, 2002.

Whitfield, Philip, and D.M. Stoddart. Hearing, taste and smell: pathways of perception. Tarrytown, NY: Torstar Books, 1984.


Dajer, Tony. "How the Nose knows." Discover January 1992.

Farbman, Albert I. "The Cellular Basis of Olfaction." Endeavour vol. 18 no. 1, 1994.

"A Nose by Any Other Name." The Economist September 1991.

Pennisi, Elizabeth. "Nose Nerve Cells Show Transplant Potential." Science News April 1993.

Kenneth B. Chiacchia

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Semiotics to SmeltingSmell - A Controversial History, A Direct Sense, Human Vs. Animal Smell, Unknown Territory