Navigating the Sense of Smell
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Our ability to distinguish the aroma of freshly baked bread from the sweet fragrance of a rose comes from millions of sensory neurons that line the upper nasal cavity. These so-called olfactory sensory neurons activate when the specific types of odor molecules to which they are attuned enter the nose, prompting them to send their sensory alerts onward to the brain, where we become aware of a distinctive scent.
If you look closely at the striking image above from a young mouse, the thin, fluorescently labeled lines (red, green, white) show the neuronal extensions, or axons, of olfactory sensory neurons. These information-conveying axons stretch right to left from the nose through the smell-mediating olfactory bulb (blue) in the forebrain of all vertebrates, ending in just the right spot (white, pink, or red).
But the axons presented here don’t belong to just any olfactory sensory neurons. They represent newly discovered “navigator” neurons, which are essential to forge life’s very first olfactory connections .
The image comes from a recent paper in the journal Neuron from an NIH-supported team led by C. Ron Yu, Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Kansas City, MO. Yu’s team offered the first hints of navigator neurons a few years ago when it showed that young mice could correct errors in their olfactory wiring only when those disruptions occurred within the first week of life .
After that, the mice had lifelong abnormalities in their sense of smell. The findings suggested that the olfactory sensory neurons present very early in life had a unique ability to blaze a trail to the brain to establish a coherent olfactory map.
The new study confirms that navigator neurons indeed have a unique molecular identity. During their short lives, they show more extensive axon growth compared to neurons that arise later. Their axons also travel a more circuitous route to the brain, as if exploring the neural tissue before settling on a path to their final destination. As olfactory neurons in older mice regenerate, they simply follow the trail blazed for them by those early scouts.
While the new findings involve mice, the researchers suspect similar processes are at work in humans too. That means images like this one aren’t just fascinating. They could help pave the way toward new approaches for reviving navigator neurons, potentially making it possible to forge new olfactory connections—and bring back the enjoyment of delightful aromas such as freshly baked bread or roses—in those who’ve lost the ability to smell.
 A population of navigator neurons is essential for olfactory map formation during the critical period. Wu Y, Ma L, Duyck K, Long CC, Moran A, Scheerer H, Blanck J, Peak A, Box A, Perera A, Yu CR. Neuron. 2018 Dec 5;100(5):1066-1082.
 A developmental switch of axon targeting in the continuously regenerating mouse olfactory system. Ma L, Wu Y, Qiu Q, Scheerer H, Moran A, Yu CR. Science. 2014 Apr 11;344(6180):194-197.
Smell Disorders (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders)
Yu Lab (Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Kansas City, MO)
NIH Support: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders