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Brain Res Bull. 2007 Apr 2;72(1):1-9. Epub 2007 Jan 16.

Characteristic component odors emerge from mixtures after selective adaptation.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Erratum in

  • Brain Res Bull. 2007 Oct 19;74(5):385-6.
  • Brain Res Bull. 2007 Jul 12;73(4-6):330.


Humans cannot reliably identify the distinctive characteristic odors of components in mixtures containing more than three compounds. In the present study, we demonstrate that selective adaptation can improve component identification. Characteristic component odors, lost in mixtures, were identifiable after presenting other mixture constituents for a few seconds. In mixtures of vanillin, isopropyl alcohol, l-menthol and phenethyl alcohol, this rapid selective adaptation unmasked each component. We suggest that these findings relate directly to how olfactory qualities are coded: olfactory receptors do not act as detectors of isolated molecular features, but likely recognize entire molecules closely associated with perceived olfactory qualities or "notes". Rapid and focused activation of a few distinct receptor types may dominate most odor percepts, emphasizing the importance of many dynamic and specific neural signals. An interaction between two fundamental coding strategies, mixture suppression and selective adaptation, with hundreds of potential olfactory notes, explains humans experiencing the appearance and disappearance of identifiable odors against ambient mixture backgrounds.

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