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Sniffing out danger: Rutgers scientists say fearful memories can trigger heightened sense of smell
Date:12/12/2013

Most people including scientists assumed we can't just sniff out danger.

It was thought that we become afraid of an odor such as leaking gas only after information about a scary scent is processed by our brain.

But neuroscientists at Rutgers University studying the olfactory sense of smell system in mice have discovered that this fear reaction can occur at the sensory level, even before the brain has the opportunity to interpret that the odor could mean trouble.

In a new study published today in Science, John McGann, associate professor of behavioral and systems neuroscience in the Department of Psychology, and his colleagues, report that neurons in the noses of laboratory animals reacted more strongly to threatening odors before the odor message was sent to the brain.

"What is surprising is that we tend to think of learning as something that only happens deep in the brain after conscious awareness," says McGann. "But now we see how the nervous system can become especially sensitive to threatening stimuli and that fear-learning can affect the signals passing from sensory organs to the brain."

McGann and students Marley Kass and Michelle Rosenthal made this discovery by using light to observe activity in the brains of genetically engineered mice through a window in the mouse's skull. They found that those mice that received an electric shock simultaneously with a specific odor showed an enhanced response to the smell in the cells in the nose, before the message was delivered to the neurons in the brain.

This new research which indicates that fearful memories can influence the senses could help to better understand conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, in which feelings of anxiety and fear exist even though an individual is no longer in danger.

"We know that anxiety disorders like PTSD can sometimes be triggered by smell, like the smell of diesel exhaust for a soldier," sa
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Contact: Robin Lally
rlally@ucm.rutgers.edu
732-932-7084 x652
Rutgers University
Source:Eurekalert

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