University Team Receives Grant to Explore Our Sense of Smell

Issue Date: 
October 26, 2015

University of Pittsburgh researchers are part of a multicenter team that has received a $6.4 million, three-year grant to determine how the animal nose knows how to localize the smell of mates, food, and other significant scents.

The federal grant is one of three multi-institutional projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of its federal BRAIN initiative. Together, the three projects total more than $15 million, and all are designed to explore the sense of smell.

Nathan Urban“We don’t really understand how the nose and brain enable a bloodhound to track a missing person, or rats to find landmines in Angola,” said Nathan Urban, a professor in the Department of Neurobiology at Pitt’s School of Medicine, and coprincipal investigator of the Pitt arm of the effort.

“If we could understand how the olfactory system accomplishes this task, it could lead us to strategies to create artificial chemical detection systems. It also could be a model for understanding other sensory systems and the integration of multiple sensory cues,” said Urban, who is also associate director of the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute.  

Determining the source of a smell, Urban added, is a difficult problem to solve because it requires sampling odors—in turbulent air— at a distance from the source. Thus, Pitt’s research team includes experts in mathematics, the physics of airflow, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology. Together, they will build models that quantify odors and develop algorithms of how the odors distribute in the environment, as well as measuring how animals and their brains react when exposed to odor plumes.

Bard Ermentrout“We can localize sound, in part, because of differences between what the right and left ears hear,” explained coprincipal investigator Bard Ermentrout, a Distinguished University Professor in Pitt’s Department of Mathematics. “Perhaps animals can orient by smell because of concentration differences picked up by each nostril, as well as incredibly rapid detection of increasing or decreasing intensities of odors. We intend to design mathematical models to examine these strategies.”

The researchers said such models could help national security and law enforcement efforts by improving methods for detecting explosives and making advances in robotic control. The models also could lead to the development of technologies that interfere with the ability of flying insects, such as disease-carrying mosquitos and crop pests, to locate their odor target.

In addition to Urban and Ermentrout, the Pitt project’s other principal investigators are based at the University of Colorado, University of California Berkeley, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York University Medical Center, and the John Pierce Laboratory, which is affiliated with Yale.