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What type of nerve cells receives stimuli for the sense of smell?

The sense of smell, also known as olfaction, is one of the five traditional senses. It allows organisms to detect and perceive odors in their environment. The detection of odors begins when odor molecules bind to specialized nerve cells called olfactory receptor neurons located in the nasal cavity. These receptor neurons contain proteins called odorant receptors which detect specific odor molecules. When an odorant binds to its matching receptor, a signal is sent to the olfactory bulb region of the brain, which interprets and identifies the smell. Understanding the olfactory system and the nerve cells involved provides important insight into how organisms experience and interact with their environment through smell.

Olfactory Receptor Neurons

Olfactory receptor neurons, also known as olfactory sensory neurons, are the main nerve cells responsible for detecting odors and transmitting signals to the brain. Here are some key facts about these specialized neurons:

  • Location – Olfactory receptor neurons are located in a small area within the nasal cavity called the olfactory epithelium. This epithelium overlies the cribriform plate of the ethmoid bone.
  • Number – Humans have around 10-20 million olfactory receptor neurons. Dogs, known for their keen sense of smell, have up to 300 million.
  • Lifespan – Olfactory neurons are regularly regenerated every 4-8 weeks as they have a limited lifespan.
  • Shape – These neurons have hair-like cilia that extend into the nasal mucus lining, allowing odor molecules access to the receptors.
  • Odorant receptors – Each neuron expresses only one type of odor receptor protein that detects specific odor molecules.
  • Signaling – When odorant binds the receptor, electrical signals are generated which travel along the olfactory nerve to the olfactory bulb in the brain.

So in summary, olfactory receptor neurons have specialized structural and molecular features that allow them to detect airborne chemicals and transmit smell signals to the brain rapidly and with specificity. The large number and diversity of these neurons allows organisms to distinguish between a wide range of odors.

Olfactory Bulb

After olfactory receptor neurons detect scents and generate signals, these signals must travel to the olfactory bulb region of the brain for processing.

  • Location – The olfactory bulb is located in the forebrain, sitting directly above the nasal cavity.
  • Organization – It has discrete structures called glomeruli that receive input from olfactory neurons expressing the same receptor type.
  • Relay – Mitral and tufted cells of the bulb collect and relay signals from glomeruli to other regions of the brain like the amygdala and olfactory cortex.
  • Processing – Here the signals undergo additional processing to identify, discriminate, and perceive smells.
  • Regeneration – The olfactory bulb exhibits plasticity and new glomeruli can form with new olfactory receptor neurons.

The olfactory bulb acts as a key relay and processing center, taking the odor signals detected by receptors and transforming them into smell perceptions in the brain. This region plays an essential role in olfaction.

Other Cell Types Involved

In addition to the main olfactory receptor neurons, there are other cell types that make important contributions to the olfactory system:

Supporting Cells

Supporting or sustentacular cells provide structural support, nutrients, and ion balance regulation for the olfactory neurons. They surround the receptor neurons and isolate their signaling.

Basal Cells

Basal cells are stem cells located in the olfactory epithelium. They can divide and differentiate into new olfactory receptor neurons throughout life to replace dying ones. This regeneration keeps the population of odor-detecting neurons intact.

Bowman’s Gland Cells

These specialized olfactory gland cells secrete mucus into the nasal cavity to trap odor molecules and provide them access to receptor sites on olfactory neurons.

Microvillus Cells

Microvillus cells are found in the nasal cavity and also detect odors, particularly water-soluble cues. They send signals to the trigeminal nerve.

Granule Cells

In the olfactory bulb, granule cells help modulate signaling and are also thought to play a role in odor memory and discrimination between similar scents.

So while olfactory receptor neurons are the main smell-sensing cells, they are assisted by various auxiliary cell types throughout the olfactory pathway.

Olfactory Pathway

The full pathway for smell detection and perception is:

  1. Odor molecules enter nose and dissolve in nasal mucus
  2. Molecules bind to receptors on cilia of olfactory neurons
  3. Receptor activation triggers electrical signals in olfactory neurons
  4. Signals passed along olfactory nerve to olfactory bulb
  5. Signals processed and sorted in olfactory bulb glomeruli
  6. Mitral and tufted cells relay signals to other brain regions like olfactory cortex
  7. Additional higher processing generates odor perception and identification

This pathway transduces airborne chemicals into neural signals the brain can recognize as distinct smells. The initial detection occurs in the olfactory receptor neurons, making them essential for the sense of smell.

Smell Loss and Nerve Damage

Damage or death of olfactory receptor neurons can impair smell function. Common causes include:

  • Upper respiratory infections
  • Chronic sinus inflammation
  • Head trauma
  • Exposure to toxins
  • Neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s

The good news is that since olfactory neurons regenerate regularly, smell impairment is often temporary. However, significant or repeated damage to these neurons can lead to longer-term hyposmia (reduced smell) or anosmia (complete loss of smell). Protecting the integrity of olfactory receptor neurons promotes healthy smell function.

Evolutionary Perspective

The olfactory abilities of organisms have evolved over time:

  • Ancient microbes – Single-celled organisms can detect chemicals signaling food sources or toxicity in the environment.
  • Insects – Detect airborne pheromones and plant volatiles using olfactory sensilla with odorant receptors.
  • Fish – Have two nostrils to determine concentration / location of smell sources for navigation.
  • Land vertebrates – Separate air-breathing nose for dedicated odor detection instead of just passing water over receptors.
  • Mammals – Increased reliance on smell for food, mates, threats. Complex receptor genes.
  • Primates – Less dependent on smell with more vision reliance. Receptor genes decreased.
  • Humans – 390 odor receptor genes compared to dogs’ 1100. Smaller olfactory bulb.

The evolution of olfactory structures reflects changing priorities and sensory dependencies of organisms over time. The olfactory receptor neurons and associated pathway form the basis of smell across species.

Research Methods

Scientists use various techniques to study olfaction:

Odorant Screens

Panels of purified odor molecules are tested against olfactory receptor proteins expressed in cell cultures to identify their specific ligands.


Electrodes measure electrical activity in olfactory neurons before and after exposure to odors at the cellular level.


Functional MRIs track activity in the human brain during smell tasks. Optical imaging visualizes glomerular activation patterns in animal bulb tissue.

Behavioral Tests

Animals or human subjects are observed in their capability to detect, discriminate, or identify different odors in controlled experiments.

Genetic Analysis

The genes encoding olfactory receptors and other proteins are studied and manipulated to determine their role in smell function.


Microscopic analysis of olfactory system cell types, connections, and anatomy in stained tissue slices.

Combining these approaches provides great insight into the olfactory system components and their signaling interactions that produce the perception of smell.


The sense of smell originates with olfactory receptor neurons, specialized nerve cells within the nasal cavity that detect airborne odorant molecules. When odors bind matching receptors on these neurons, electrical signals are generated. These signals pass along the olfactory nerve to the olfactory bulb where they are sorted, processed, and sent to other brain regions to create smell perceptions. Supporting cells, basal cells, and gland cells all assist the olfactory neurons. Damage to these neurons can impair smell function. Comparative biology shows varying evolutionary importance of olfaction between organisms. Diverse scientific techniques are unraveling the complex mechanisms underlying this important sensory system. Gaining a fuller understanding of the cells and pathways involved provides crucial insight into the mysterious and fascinating sense of smell.

Olfactory System Component Description
Olfactory Receptor Neurons Specialized nerve cells in nasal cavity that detect odors and transmit signals to brain
Olfactory Bulb Forebrain structure that receives odor signals and sorts them into glomeruli
Supporting Cells Provide structural support and nutrition for olfactory neurons
Basal Cells Stem cells that regenerate dying olfactory neurons
Bowman’s Gland Secrete mucus into nasal cavity to dissolve odors
Microvillus Cells Detect water-soluble odors and signal trigeminal nerve
Granule Cells Modulate signaling in olfactory bulb, may aid odor memory