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Pitt Team Awarded Grant to Sniff Out How Humans and Animals Localize Odors

PITTSBURGH, Sept. 23, 2015 – Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are part of a multicenter team that has been awarded a $6.4 million, three-year federal grant to figure out how the animal nose knows how to localize the smell of mates, food and other significant scents.
As part of its efforts under the federal BRAIN initiative, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is providing more than $15 million of funding for 17 scientists collaborating in three multi-institutional projects designed to explore the sense of smell, said Nathan Urban, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Neurobiology at Pitt School of Medicine, associate director of the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute and co-principal investigator of the Pitt arm of the effort.
“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,” Dr. Urban said. “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.” 
He added localizing where a smell is coming from is a very difficult problem to solve because it requires sampling odors at a distance from the source in turbulent air. So, the team includes experts in mathematics, the physics of airflow, neuroscience and evolutionary biology to build models that quantify odors and develop algorithms of how they distribute in the environment, as well as to measure how animals and their brains react when exposed to odor plumes.
“We can localize sound in part because of differences between what the right and left ears hear,” explained co-principal investigator Bard Ermentrout, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor in the Department of Mathematics at Pitt. “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 potentially be useful for national security and law enforcement through improved methods for the detection of explosives, olfactory robots to replace trained animals, and advances in robotic control. They 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.
Dr. Ermentrout has reason to be curious about olfaction. Coincidentally, several months ago after a bad cold, the gourmand realized he couldn’t smell properly, which in turn has affected his ability to taste food. About one in five cases of anosmia develop after an upper respiratory tract infection.
“Anosmia can be a complication of neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease,” Dr. Urban noted. “In the future, we want to connect the dots and figure out why brain diseases can have these consequences.”
In addition to Drs. Urban and Ermentrout, the project’s other principal investigators are John Crimaldi, Ph.D., University of Colorado; Lucia Jacobs, Ph.D., University of California Berkeley; Jonathan Victor, M.D., Ph.D., Weill Cornell Medical College; Katherine Nagel, Ph.D., New York University Medical Center; and Justus Verhagen, Ph.D., John Pierce Laboratory.
According to the NSF, all the research proposals arose from the NSF Olfactory Ideas Lab workshop, which brought together 30 scientists and engineers from different fields who  over five days formed teams and project ideas. The NSF hopes that this unique mechanism will promote transformative, interdisciplinary science.

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