FSU neuroscientist receives $2M NIH grant to study how humans process smells

Douglas Storace is an assistant professor of biological science and affiliate of the neuroscience program.
Douglas Storace is an assistant professor of biological science and affiliate of the neuroscience program.

A Florida State University researcher is investigating exactly how a human’s sense of smell works with the help of a $2 million National Institutes of Health grant.

Humans can detect an estimated 10,000 to 100 billion different odors. An active sense of smell sparks appetite, inspires nostalgic memories and helps individuals interact with the environment. While the human olfactory sense declines naturally with age, sensory disorders stemming from infection or disease can negatively affect this ability at any age.

Douglas Storace, an assistant professor of biological science, is researching how olfactory cues, or signals that our brains receive from odors, are transformed by the brain into meaningful information that allows for the recognition of food, mates and threats — even in complex environments.

Understanding the mechanisms underlying olfactory function in healthy individuals is the first step in developing treatments for those suffering with olfactory dysfunction.

The work is being funded by a new, five-year, $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

In this Q-and-A, Storace discusses his work and what the new grant means for him and FSU.

Q: What projects are you currently working on?

A: With a new grant from the National Institutes of Health, I’m hoping to gain a more complete understanding of how the brain carries out processes in the olfactory circuit, which will also improve understanding of perceptual stability. For animals, smell is critical in identifying and locating foods, mates and dangers. Recognizing odors requires the identification of a certain smell that can vary in intensity while localization involves pinpointing a concentration profile that can vary in time and space. The goal of this project is to define the neural circuits that support odor recognition and the ability to identify and adjust sensitivity to complex olfactory profiles.

 Our incomplete understanding of the brain makes it challenging to identify the mechanisms that underlie sensory and motor deficiencies, brain disorders or diseases. By studying how sensory information is encoded and transformed by processing in the brain and where these processes are occurring, we hope to define these mechanisms and be able to develop strategies to protect against and alleviate these deficiencies.

First, my project will define how changes in the concentration of an odor are encoded and transformed across the olfactory bulb circuit. Then, how different concentrations or durations or odor exposure impacts responses to future odor stimulation will be examined to provide a comprehensive description of how two perceptual functions are carried out by the olfactory bulb.

Q: How do our olfactory functions change with age? How do diseases such as COVID-19 affect smell?

A: Growing older affects the entire sensory system. Slowly but surely, we get worse at smelling things and distinguishing between smells as we get older. Certain neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s influence sensory functions because of the areas of the brain that these diseases affect.

 However, it’s not yet entirely understood how other factors such as COVID-19 affect our olfactory functions. While COVID doesn’t affect the cells that are working as binding sites and detectors of odors, the disease enters through and attacks the supporting cells surrounding these detectors. Those cells were underappreciated, but their apparent role has created more interest in understanding how they interface with the cells that detect odors.

Q: What is most important for the public to know about your work?

A: The biological and medical benefits that can stem from a more complete understanding of the brain area extremely important. Neuroscience investigates how a dynamic and changing system works and the things that underlie this system in order to address the sources of problems like diseases and disorders rather than just treating the symptoms.