Smell is more than just one of the five senses. It can transport you back to childhood and is a huge component of taste. That’s because olfactory signals travel through parts of the brain involving memory and emotion. Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University are developing a bionic nose to restore those connections to people who have lost their sense of smell. The electronic nose includes a pair of glasses with a sensor that picks up scents and sends a signal to a device similar to the cochlear implants but that instead restores smell. The implant then triggers olfactory bulbs in the brain that correspond to different scents.
We learned about the research on IEEE Spectrum, which shares more in-depth graphics on how the device works. The team has a patent and conducted trials in rats, but there is still a lot of work to do before the device is ready for human trials or commercially available. There are 400 smell receptors in a human nose and thousands of combinations that make up specific odors. Mapping those onto an electronic device is no small project. Even if the team can’t restore the entire range of smell through these glasses, the device could be personalized with a smaller amount of odors that are important to each user.
Simple versions of electronic noses already exist, like the carbon monoxide detector you (hopefully) have in your home. Scientists are also working on sensors to sniff out diseases the way some animals can be trained to do. There’s even an e-nose that sniffs out the quality of whiskey.
Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth.