Friday, 28 August 2015

Smell like a Neandertal

I had breakfast last month in Borough market with Professor Kara C. Hoover of the Department of Anthropology University of Alaska Fairbanks. Kara has been doing research into Allelic variation at 4 loci in the human olfactory receptor gene OR7D4 is associated with perceptual variation in the sex steroid-derived odorants, androstenone, and androstadienone (tell me if I've remembered this wrong Kara!).

One interesting upshot is that Denisovan Neandertal had specific scent receptors that modern humans lack and Kara wondered if  I could come up with any insights on how to we could illustrate this effect to modern humans. Essentially this is a problem of qualia of unexpressed pathways. If we don't have the receptors we can't detect or react to the stimulus. However we can address it by analogy. I suggested that we could create a series of virtual environments that would illustrate the impact of  sex steroid-derived odorants, and allow the viewer so gauge the impact with and without the appropriate olfactory input. We know for instance that androstenol – a steroid derived odor which Activates the Hypothalamus in Women and so it suggests a set up a little like this:

Subject wars a Oculus Rift which shows (and provides sounds for) the scene of a sophisticated dinner party. A high temporal resolution, high fidelity scent delivery system (design outlined but I guess we might want to patent it so I won't describe it [2]), simulates all the requite scents at exactly the right time including nasal stereo - e.g. flowers, candles, wines, foods. The watcher moves a slider or pushes a bar to indicate level of interest. In some studies there is no  androstenol (or whatever we choose as an analog) in other there are appropriate pulses. We establish that such scents are still influential and at what intensity they influence the watcher. Now we can show those influences again - we can re-run the life of the Denisovan Neandertal. The scents this time are grass, sweat, cooking meat, smoke and of course androstenol. The watcher can't experience the lost scents, but they can get part of the emotional impact and see how they fit into the life pattern. It's VR smellovision - the next generation!

[2] There are  400 functional genes coding for olfactory receptors and there is no reason why we can't deliver 400 different scent channels tuned to each receptor with te method outlined to Kara.
[3] Kara Hoover is on @KaraCHoover

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