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J Theor Biol. 1997 Jun 7;186(3):279-301.

A numerical model of nasal odorant transport for the analysis of human olfaction.

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  • 1Department of Bioengineering, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia 19104-6392, USA.


The transport and uptake of inspired odorant molecules in the human nasal cavity were determined using an anatomically correct three-dimensional finite element model. The steady-state equations of motion and continuity were first solved to determine laminar flow patterns of odorous air at quiet breathing flow rates. The air stream entering the ventral tip of the naris traveled to the olfactory slit, and then passed through the slit in nearly a straight path without forming separated recirculating zones. The fraction of volumetric flow passing through the olfactory airway was about 10%, and remained nearly constant with variation in flow rate. The three-dimensional inspiratory velocity field was used in the solution of the uncoupled steady convective-diffusion equation to determine the concentration field in the airways and odorant mass flux at the nasal walls. The mass-transfer boundary condition used at the nasal cavity wall included the effects of solubility and diffusivity of odorants in the mucosal lining, and the thickness of the mucus layer. The total olfactory flux of odorants, that is highly correlated with perceived odor intensity, was determined as a function of all transport parameters in our model. Increase in nasal flow rate at a constant inlet concentration resulted in an increase in total olfactory uptake for all odorants. However, with increase in flow rate, the fractional uptake, i.e., total olfactory flux normalized by convective flux at the inlet, decreased for poorly soluble odorants, while it increased for highly soluble odorants. The pattern of flux (or imposed patterning) across the olfactory mucosa, that carries information concerning odor identity, was also determined as a function of transport parameters. There was an overall decrease in odorant flux as the location on the olfactory surface was varied from the anterior towards the posterior and from the inferior towards the superior ends. The flux pattern became more uniform, i.e., the steepness of the flux gradients across the olfactory surface decreased, as the mucus solubility of the odorants decreased. Different odorants generated discernibly different flux patterns across the olfactory mucosa that may contribute to the encoding of odor quality. Variation of total olfactory flux with time after cessation of airflow was determined by solving the unsteady diffusion equation in the air-phase. The flux decreased approximately exponentially with time. The rate of decay decreased as solubility and diffusivity decreased, but was very rapid over a wide range of the parameters, with time constants of less than 0.5 s for most odorants, implying a rapid decrease in perceived odor intensity with cessation of nasal airflow.

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