Published: Mon, May 15, 2017
Health Care | By Oscar Goodwin

Superior sniffers: can we smell wine better than dogs?

Superior sniffers: can we smell wine better than dogs?

He included humans among the latter, along with dolphins, which lack olfactory bulbs entirely. Research shows we unconsciously smell our hands after shaking hands with a stranger, for example.

The faulty persistent claim is thanks to Paul Broca, a 19th century brain surgeon and anthropologist as the culprit for the falsehood that humans have an impoverished olfactory system. It is true, McGann, Shepherd and others acknowledge, that dogs and rodents have proportionately larger olfactory organs than human beings, as well as vastly higher number of different receptors in their brains that are activated by smell - roughly 1,000 compared to 400 among humans.

A United States researcher has concluded that the human's sense of smell is as good as those of rats and dogs, debunking an nearly 100-year myth which said the opposite.

"Some research suggests that losing the sense of smell may be the start of memory problems and diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's", said McGann, in a statement.

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Earlier this week, Rutgers University neurobiologist John McGann wrote about this long-held misconception - that the human sense of smell is weak because it's a tradeoff for our sharp vision.

But merely looking at those numbers and concluding that humans can not smell well, a belief advocated by Sigmund Freud and Immanuel Kant, is a "gross oversimplification", McGann claims. Despite body weight differences of 5800 fold between some species, the number of olfactory bulb neurons only changes by 28 fold. That means that the human body, including our sense of smell, also changed to adapt to the surrounding conditions.

"Humans are evolved to detect things like fruit much more than a dog is". He estimates humans can discriminate between up to a trillion different odours. "It lets us freely assign different emotional values and meanings to a given odour, indeed to treat a smell as a symbol", he says.

We're discovering, to our delight, that the human smell system is much better than we were led to believe.
How exactly did the human sense of smell evolve?

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The human olfactory bulb makes up just 0.01 per cent of the brain's volume compared to two per cent in mice, McGann said. "The enormously larger apparatus of most other mammals gives them powers far beyond our comprehension", he wrote.

But there was a hitch: Finding two odors that the human subjects couldn't tell apart already proved more challenging than McGann and his students expected.

In particular, Broca suggested the human brain's olfactory bulbs, where smells are processed, had reduced in size to accommodate the expanded frontal lobes.

Another great thing about human smell is that it influences our behavior. He claimed that smell is "usually atrophied" in humans and that people who took pleasure in scents were more animalistic, and therefore more likely to suffer from sexual disorders. For instance, cows have almost 2,000 odor receptor genes, and that would mean they smell better than dogs. That, said McGann, may be because it was more important for our ancestors to determine if fruit is ripe, but much less important to dogs. Canines are indeed superior at sniffing out urine on lamp-posts, he says, but humans far outperform them when it comes to bananas; different species, it seems, specialise in different smells. In another experiment, blindfolded students were even able to follow a "smell trail", crawling through a park following scent. All three of these notions are 19th century myths, with the last idea perhaps the most enduring.

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