Researchers at Northwestern University (NU) have developed a new "smell virtual landscape" to study how smells engage the brain's navigation system, and the study demonstrates, for the first time, that the mammalian brain can form a map of its surroundings based solely on smells.
NU researchers have long known that odors can guide animals' behaviors. By using a virtual reality system made of smells instead of audio and visuals, they created a landscape in which smells can be controlled and maintained.
Aided by a predictive algorithm that determined precise timing and distributions, NU researchers used the airflow system to pump scents, such as bubblegum, pine and a sour smell, past the mouse's nose to create a virtual room. Mice first explored the virtual environment through both visual and olfactory cues.
The researchers then shut off the visual virtual reality system, forcing the mice to navigate the room in total darkness based on olfactory cues alone. The mice did not show a decrease in performance. Instead, moving through a smell landscape engages mice brain's spatial mapping mechanisms, the study indicated.
Not only can the platform help researchers learn more about how the brain processes and uses smells, it could also lay the groundwork for human applications.
The olfactory-based virtual reality system could lead to a fuller understanding of odor-guided navigation and explain why mammals have an aversion to unpleasant odors, an attraction to pheromones and an innate preference to one odor over another. The system could also help tech developers incorporate smell into current virtual reality systems to give users a more multisensory experience.
The study was published online in the journal Nature Communications on Feb. 26.