The Human Brain Distinguishes between Single Odorants and Binary Mixtures

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Single odors are processed differently from odor mixtures in the cortex of rodents. We investigated whether single and binary odor mixtures activate different regions also in the human brain. We analyzed data from positron emission tomography scans using pyridine, citral, and 5 mixtures of pyridine and citral in proportions varying from 10/90 to 90/10, with 50/50 being the most impure. Comparing mixtures with single odorants gave activation in the left cingulate and right parietal and superior frontal cortices and bilateral activation in the anterior and lateral orbitofrontal cortices. We also found that brain activity in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) increased with odorant impurity, whereas the anterior OFC was activated for binary odor mixtures and deactivated for single components. We conclude that binary odor mixtures and their individual components are processed differently by the human brain. The lateral portion of the OFC responds to mixture impurity in a graded fashion, whereas the anterior portion acts like an on–off detector of odor mixtures.

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