Having a good sense of direction is linked with having a good sense of smell as well.

How best can you find your way round your city? With ease, or do you have trouble navigating like a lab rat in a maze? No offense! According to a study, people with better spatial memory — the ability to navigate — are also better at identifying odors. The researchers hypothesized that if this were indeed the case, there would be a strong link between navigation and olfaction.

Hey There, Where You At?

The new research which appeared in the Journal Nature Communications found that similar regions of the brain — like the hippocampus and the medial orbitofrontal cortex — are both responsible for different activities in the brain. They also found that the medial orbitofrontal cortex which was mainly responsible for olfaction, is also critical to spatial memory.

To test such hypothesis, the researchers recruited 57 participants (all young men and women) and tasked them with a series of tests relating to spatial memory. In one experiment, the participants were asked to tour a virtual city for about 20 minutes, roaming thru and fro as they passed along major landmarks — schools, streets, shops, and so on. Later, the researchers asked participants to find direct routes between some of the landmarks.

Why Don’t You Sniff Me Out

Image: Shutterstock / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Afterwards, they asked participants to sniff out 40 different scents — like basil, strawberry, peach, cinnamon, and the like. The researchers later then used structural Magnetic Resonance Imaging (sMRI) to scan various regions of their brain that was related with spatial memory and olfaction.

They found that participants with a bigger right hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for long-term memory), and a thicker left medial orbitofrontal cortex (an area of the brain responsible for olfaction), had the tendency of both spatial navigation and identifying smells, respectively.

In previous studies, there wasn’t any correlation between the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which is critical for olfaction, and spatial navigation. So the researchers had to verify their findings with another experiment that involved only nine participants who had damages in that said regions of the brain.

The researchers found that patients with damages to their medial orbitofrontal cortex showed both signs of spatial memory and olfactory deficiencies; whereas patients with damages elsewhere of their brain had no signs of these deficiencies.

I’m Here, There, Everywhere…

“The fact that both functions seem to rely on similar brain regions supports the idea that they were systems in the brain that were evolving at the same time — though this is theory, rather than anything we set out to show in this paper,” says lead author Véronique Bohbot from McGill University’s psychiatry department, and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute.

“All we can say for sure is that we now know a bit more about the brain systems involved in both navigation and olfaction.” as she concludes.

Source: McGill University.

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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Tue, Sep 03, 2019.


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