Scientists Say: Olfactory | Science News for Students

Scientists Say: Olfactory

This word refers to your sense of smell
Aug 12, 2019 — 6:30 am EST
a photo of the nose of a white dog peeping out from under a plaid blanket

The nose is an olfactory organ. It’s involved in the sense of smell.

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Olfactory (adjective, “Ol-FAHCK-tor-ee”)

This word describes anything having to do with the sense of smell. The word is derived from olfaction, which is the act of smelling. Olfaction is a form of chemosensing — or how we sense chemicals in our environment. Chemicals in the air called odorants stick to molecules in our noses. That sends signals to brain cells that extend out into the olfactory bulb, a part of the brain above the nose. Signals travel along those cells to an area of the brain called the olfactory cortex. In the olfactory cortex, the brain processes the signal and we interpret it as a steak, a flower or a smelly pair of gym socks. If it’s got olfactory in the name, it’s got to do with our sense of smell.

The sense of smell even affects our sense of taste. That’s because our olfactory system also contributes to how we taste foods. Odors combine with our basic sense of taste (sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami) to give foods their complex flavors. That’s why food tastes so different when our noses are stuffed up from a cold.

The word “olfactory” comes from Latin. Facere means “to do” in Latin, and olere means “to smell.”

In a sentence

Scientists have found that people might be able to use their olfactory senses to navigate.

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Power Words

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cell     The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells. Most organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

cortex     The outermost part of an organ, such as the kidney or brain. Or the outer part of some microbes or plant, such as a tree's bark or a mango's rind. (in hair) The protein-based layer of a hair shaft  (the layer responsible for a hair's color) that is below the cuticle.

molecule     An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).

navigate     To find one’s way through a landscape using visual cues, sensory information (like scents), magnetic information (like an internal compass) or other techniques.

olfaction     (adj. olfactory) The sense of smell.

olfactory bulb     A region in the front of the brain that receives information from smell-receptor nerves in the nose (and nasal cavity).

taste     One of the basic properties the body uses to sense its environment, especially foods, using receptors (taste buds) on the tongue (and some other organs).