Zapping the Olfactory Bulb Produces Phantom Smells
Zapping the Olfactory Bulb Produces Phantom Smells

Zapping the Olfactory Bulb Produces Phantom Smells

Researchers envision a cochlear implant–like device for the nose to give people with impaired olfaction a sense of smell.

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Shawna Williams

Shawna joined The Scientist in 2017 and is now a senior editor and news director. She holds a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from Colorado College and a graduate certificate and science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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Nov 27, 2018

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The sensation of perceiving a smell can be induced in people by using electrodes to stimulate the brain’s olfactory bulb, researchers report today (November 27) in the International Forum of Allergy & Rhinology. The results, they suggest, are a proof of concept that it would be possible to develop an “olfactory implant system” to aid people with an impaired sense of smell, known as anosmia.

“Our work shows that smell restoration technology is an idea worth studying further,” says coauthor Eric Holbrook of Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in a press release. “The development of cochlear implants, for example, didn’t really accelerate until someone placed an electrode in the cochlea of a patient and found that the patient heard a frequency of some type.”

Holbrook and colleagues enrolled five subjects in the study who were able to smell. Three of them reported perceiving...

The finding follows a report earlier this year that electrically stimulating structures high up in the nasal cavity produced smell sensations. The scientists who conducted that study at Malaysia’s Imagineering Institute aim to one day transmit smells electronically, reportes IEEE Spectrum—for example, to give restaurant-goers a whiff of dishes on the menu as they decide what to order. 

See “Regularly Whiffing Essential Oils Can Retrain Sense of Smell

As in the Massachusetts Ear and Eye study, the Imagineering Institute researchers weren’t able to control which odor the subjects perceived. The Malaysian team suggests the digital smells could be transmitted through a noninvasive headset, rather than with electrodes up the nose, which their volunteers found quite uncomfortable. As coauthor Kasun Karunanayaka tells IEEE Spectrum, “A lot of people wanted to participate, but after one trial they left, because they couldn’t bear it.” 

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Zapping the Olfactory Bulb Produces Phantom Smells

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