/ Modified jul 14, 2015 3:11 p.m.

ASU Researchers Challenge Smell Study

Research claims human noses can detect a trillion different smells

Nose smell spotlight


By Andrew Bernier, Arizona Science Desk

Researchers at Arizona State University have challenged a study that showed human noses can detect a trillion distinct smells.

The study has been widely disseminated and is already making its way into textbooks. It altered aroma compounds until people could no longer distinguish smells. It then took an equation to multiply those results and produced a number of possible distinguishable smells in the trillions.

“That’s where we jumped in and said ‘time out,’” said Richard Gerkin, an ASU researcher. “This is not quite the right way to do this problem.”

Gerkin said misunderstanding and poor math used to get the number is the focus of a new report released Wednesday that criticizes the original research.

“The way they determined ‘are two things similar or different?,’ the threshold they used, was a number that was very, very sensitive to the design of the experiment,” Gerkin said. “And it allowed them to basically generate any number that they wanted and that’s not a really good procedure.”

Gerkin said it’s important because this misunderstanding can compromise future olfactory and neurological research.

However, he and the original report authors will be collaborating to find a more accurate number.

The Arizona Science Desk is a collaboration of public broadcasting entities in the state, including Arizona Public Media.

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