Eye closure in darkness animates olfactory and gustatory cortical areas

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In two previous fMRI studies, it was reported that eyes-open and eyes-closed conditions in darkness had differential effects on brain activity, and typical patterns of cortical activity were identified. Without external stimulation, ocular motor and attentional systems were activated when the eyes were open. On the contrary, the visual, somatosensory, vestibular, and auditory systems were activated when the eyes were closed. In this study, we investigated whether cortical areas related to the olfactory and gustatory system are also animated by eye closure without any other external stimulation. In a first fMRI experiment (n= 22), we identified cortical areas including the piriform cortex activated by olfactory stimulation. In a second experiment (n= 12) subjects lying in darkness in the MRI scanner alternately opened and closed their eyes. In accordance to previous studies, we found activation clusters bilaterally in visual, somatosensory, vestibular and auditory cortical areas for the contrast eyes-closed vs. eyes-open. In addition, we were able to show that cortical areas related to the olfactory and gustatory system were also animated by eye closure. These results support the hypothesis that there are two different states of mental activity: with the eyes closed, an “interoceptive” state characterized by imagination and multisensory activity and with the eyes open, an “exteroceptive” state characterized by attention and ocular motor activity. Our study also suggests that the chosen baseline condition may have a considerable impact on activation patterns and on the interpretation of brain activation studies. This needs to be considered for studies of the olfactory and gustatory system.

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