Each olfactory receptor neuron expresses only one functional odor receptor. Odor receptor nerve cells function like a key-lock system: If the airborne molecules of a certain chemical can fit into the lock, the nerve cell will respond. There are, at present, a number of competing theories regarding the mechanism of odor coding and perception. According to the shape theory, each receptor detects a feature of the odor molecule. Weak-shape theory, known as odotope theory, suggests that different receptors detect only small pieces of molecules, and these minimal inputs are combined to form a larger olfactory perception (similar to the way visual perception is built up of smaller, information-poor sensations, combined and refined to create a detailed overall perception). An alternative theory, the vibration theory proposed by Luca Turin, posits that odor receptors detect the frequencies of vibrations of odor molecules in the infrared range by electron tunnelling. However, the behavioral predictions of this theory have been called into question. As of yet, there is no theory that explains olfactory perception completely.
However, research is still being done, and institutes like the Monell Chemical Senses Center are working to uncover the secrets of olfactory perception.
Molecules of odorants passing through the superior nasal concha of the nasal passages dissolve in the mucus lining the superior portion of the cavity and are detected by olfactory receptors on the dendrites of the olfactory sensory neurons. This may occur by diffusion or by the binding of the odorant to odorant binding proteins. The mucus overlying the epithelium contains mucopolysaccharides, salts, enzymes, and antibodies (these are highly important, as the olfactory neurons provide a direct passage for infection to pass to the brain).
In insects smells are sensed by olfactory sensory neurons in the chemosensory sensilla, which are present in insect antenna, palps and tarsa, but also on other parts of the insect body. Odorants penetrate into the cuticle pores of chemosensory sensilla and get in contact with insect Odorant binding proteins (OBPs) or Chemosensory proteins (CSPs), before activating the sensory neurons.
Averaged activity of the receptor neurons can be measured in several ways. In vertebrates responses to an odor can be measured by an electroolfactogram or through calcium imaging of receptor neuron terminals in the olfactory bulb. In insects, one can perform electroantenogram or also calcium imaging within the olfactory bulb.
The receptor neurons in the nose are particularly interesting because they are the only direct recipient of stimuli in all of the senses which are nerves. Senses like hearing, tasting, and, to some extent, touch use cilia or other indirect pressure to stimulate nerves, and sight uses the chemical Rhodopsin to stimulate the brain.
The mitral cells leave the olfactory bulb in the lateral olfactory tract, which synapses on five major regions of the cerebrum: the anterior olfactory nucleus, the olfactory tubercle, the amygdala, the piriform cortex, and the entorhinal cortex. The anterior olfactory nucleus projects, via the anterior commissure, to the contralateral olfactory bulb, inhibiting it. The piriform cortex projects to the medial dorsal nucleus of the thalamus, which then projects to the orbitofrontal cortex. The orbitofrontal cortex mediates conscious perception of the odor. The 3-layered piriform cortex projects to a number of thalamic and hypothalamic nuclei, the hippocampus and amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex but its function is largely unknown. The entorhinal cortex projects to the amygdala and is involved in emotional and autonomic responses to odor. It also projects to the hippocampus and is involved in motivation and memory. Odor information is easily stored in long-term memory and has strong connections to emotional memory. This is possibly due to the olfactory system's close anatomical ties to the limbic system and hippocampus, areas of the brain that have long been known to be involved in emotion and place memory, respectively.
Since any one receptor is responsive to various odorants, and there is a great deal of convergence at the level of the olfactory bulb, it seems strange that human beings are able to distinguish so many different odors. It seems that there must be a highly-complex form of processing occurring; however, as it can be shown that, while many neurons in the olfactory bulb (and even the pyriform cortex and amygdala) are responsive to many different odors, half the neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex are responsive only to one odor, and the rest to only a few. It has been shown through microelectrode studies that each individual odor gives a particular specific spatial map of excitation in the olfactory bulb. It is possible that, through spatial encoding, the brain is able to distinguish specific odors. However, temporal coding must be taken into account. Over time, the spatial maps change, even for one particular odor, and the brain must be able to process these details as well.
The MHC genes (known as HLA in humans) are a group of genes present in many animals and important for the immune system; in general, offspring from parents with differing MHC genes have a stronger immune system. Fish, mice and female humans are able to smell some aspect of the MHC genes of potential sex partners and prefer partners with MHC genes different from their own.
Scientists have devised methods for quantifying the intensity of odors, particularly for the purpose of analyzing unpleasant or objectionable odors released by an industrial source into a community. Since the 1800s, industrial countries have encountered incidents where proximity of an industrial source or landfill produced adverse reactions to nearby residents regarding airborne odor. The basic theory of odor analysis is to measure what extent of dilution with "pure" air is required before the sample in question is rendered indistinguishable from the "pure" or reference standard. Since each person perceives odor differently, an "odor panel" composed of several different people is assembled, each sniffing the same sample of diluted specimen air. A field olfactometer can be utilized to determine the magnitude of an odor. One example is the Nasal Ranger field olfactometer, which is often utilized in odor studies.
Many air management districts in the USA have numerical standards of acceptability for the intensity of odor that is allowed to cross into a residential property. For example, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has applied its standard in regulating numerous industries, landfills, and sewage treatment plants. Example applications this district has engaged are the San Mateo, California wastewater treatment plant; the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California; and the IT Corporation waste ponds, Martinez, California.
The importance and sensitivity of smell varies among different organisms; most mammals have a good sense of smell, whereas most birds do not, except the tubenoses (e.g., petrels and albatrosses), and the kiwis. Among mammals, it is well-developed in the carnivores and ungulates, who must always be aware of each other, and in those that smell for their food, like moles.
Dogs in general have a nose approximately a hundred thousand to a million times more sensitive than a human's. Scenthounds as a group can smell one- to ten-million times more acutely than a human, and Bloodhounds, which have the keenest sense of smell of any dogs, have noses ten- to one-hundred-million times more sensitive than a human's. They were bred for the specific purpose of tracking humans, and can detect a scent trail a few days old. The second-most-sensitive nose is possessed by the Basset Hound, which was bred to track and hunt rabbits and other small animals.
The sense of smell is less-developed in the catarrhine primates (Catarrhini), and nonexistent in cetaceans, which compensate with a well-developed sense of taste. In some prosimians, such as the Red-bellied Lemur, scent glands occur atop the head. In many species, olfaction is highly tuned to pheromones; a male silkworm moth, for example, can sense a single molecule of bombykol.
Fish too have a well-developed sense of smell, even though they inhabit an aquatic environment. Salmon utilize their sense of smell to identify and return to their home stream waters. Catfish use their sense of smell to identify other individual catfish and to maintain a social hierarchy. Many fishes use the sense of smell to identify mating partners or to alert to the presence of food.
Insects primarily use their antennae for olfaction. Sensory neurons in the antenna generate odor-specific electrical signals called spikes in response to odor. They process these signals from the sensory neurons in the antennal lobe followed by the mushroom bodies and lateral horn of the brain. The antennae have the sensory neurons in the sensilla and they have their axons terminating in the antennal lobes where they synapse with other neurons there in semidelineated (with membrane boundaries) called glomeruli. These antennal lobes have two kinds of neurons, projection neurons (excitatory) and local neurons (inhibitory). The projection neurons send their axon terminals to mushroom body and lateral horn (both of which are part of the protocerebrum of the insects), and local neurons have no axons. Recordings from projection neurons show in some insects strong specialization and discrimination for the odors presented (especially for the projection neurons of the macroglomeruli, a specialized complex of glomeruli responsible for the pheromones detection). Processing beyond this level is not exactly known though some preliminary results are available.