From Nose to Brain: The Neurology of Smell
Dr. Stuart Firestein is the Chair of Columbia University's Department of Biological Sciences. His colleagues and he study the vertebrate olfactory receptor neuron as a model for investigating general principles and mechanisms of "signal transduction" — the ways in which chemicals, such as neurotransmitters, hormones, and peptides with membrane receptors, exert their influence in the brain and nervous system. He hypothesizes that the olfactory neuron is uniquely suited for these studies since it is designed specifically for the detection and discrimination of a wide variety of small organic molecules, i.e. odors.
Question: Are olfactory signals processed in your brain in a similar fashion to visual or auditory signals?
Stuart Firestein: So the olfactory neurons once they bind this odor molecule and change as I say, their electrical quality, the voltage if you will, across their membrane this signal is transmitted to the brain down a long cable-like structure called an axon, which most brain cells have. It goes through a very thin bone and into a region of your brain called the olfactory bulb, a very small chunk of your brain that actually hangs under the bottom of your brain just kind of behind your eyes if you will. And there they make a connection with another set of neurons, so a connection that we call a synapse and they make a connection with another set of neurons, which then transmits the message to the next step in the brain.
So the first step, the first relay station is the olfactory bulb and from there the signal is sent mostly to an area, specialized area of cortex, of brain cortex called the piriform cortex. Now this pathway is unusual because the other senses typically from the primary tissue—the retina or the auditory, the hair cells of the auditory or the cochlea—send their signals first to a tissue in the center of the brain, an organizing region in the center of the brain called the thalamus. And there the signals are sorted and standardized and then moved out into specialized area of the cortex—the visual cortex at the back of your brain, the auditory cortex on the side of your brain—for further processing and presumably building up into a perception. I’m waving my hands a bit here because we really don’t understand so much about those processes yet, although we’re beginning to.
The olfactory system is a bit unusual in that way in that it does not go through the thalamus. At some point later in the progress of olfactory information there is an offshoot of some of the fibers that do go to thalamus, but it’s rather minor. So instead in the olfactory system you go from the sensory neurons to this olfactory bulb structure where there is a synapse with another kind of cell. It’s called a mitral cell—and those mitral cells take in information from lots of different sensory neurons and decide what is being smelled out there, because of course most of the time we don’t smell a single molecule, we smell a blend of molecules. Usually a complex blend of molecules and so pulling that all apart is at least partly the job of these mitral cells to which the olfactory sensory neurons make a connection. The mitral cells then make some decisions, if you will. They integrate information and they have an axon also, a long cable that goes to this area of the brain called the piriform cortex where they synapse, make connections with yet another cell.
So what is remarkable about this in the olfactory system is that from the outside world to cortical tissue, which is the highest level of brain tissue we have, there are only two synapses, two connections, one between the sensory neuron and the cells in the olfactory bulb and then between these olfactory bulb cells, the mitral cells and those in the piriform cortex.
In any other system you wouldn’t be anywhere yet. In the visual system you’d still be in the retina after two synapses. You wouldn’t have even gotten to the inner retina let alone to the thalamus or to the visual cortex, which is six or seven synapses away. The same thing is true of auditory system and many other sensory systems including taste by the way, the actual taste system. There are at least three, four, five synapses to get you to cortical tissue whereas the olfactory system has this very immediate access to the cortex.
Recorded September 22, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont
Image courtesy of Flickr user Greencolander.
What’s remarkable about the olfactory system is that from the outside world to the highest level of brain tissue there are only two synapses.
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Would you ever have sex with a robot?
- In 2016, "Harmony", the world's first AI sex robot was designed by a tech firm called Realbotix.
- According to 2020 survey data, more than one in five Americans (22 percent) say they would consider having sex with a robot. This is an increase from a survey conducted in 2017.
- Robots (and robotic tech) already play a vital role in speeding up manufacturing, packaging, and processing across various industries.
From homemade dildos to Harmony, the AI sex robot<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3f7451615568e74c6a839f04329c9902"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-cN8sJz50Ng?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><em>"...amid an economic crisis, with restaurants and retailers closing their doors and larger companies laying off and furloughing employees, the sex tech industry is booming."</em><br></p><p>A Bustle <a href="https://www.bustle.com/wellness/the-sex-tech-industry-is-booming-amid-economic-crisis-22819801" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">article</a> published in April 2020, weeks after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, explored the drastic boost in the sex tech industry. According to the research, <a href="https://www.dameproducts.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dame Products</a> (a popular sex toy retailer) experienced a 30 percent increase in sales between the months of February to April, and popular sexual wellness brand <a href="https://unboundbabes.com/?utm_source=%7Bsource%7D&utm_medium=%7Bmedium%7D&utm_keyword=unbound%20babes&utm_matchtype=e&device=c&utm_campaign=%7Bcampaign%7D&utm_adgroup=%7Badgroup%7D&gclid=CjwKCAjw1v_0BRAkEiwALFkj5qYbdEwANUjCdRkCeVZ2HZzHjcGmpYbsOXYcMcNneLc2nySvrbaalBoChEsQAvD_BwE" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Unbound</a> reported selling twice as many toys as normal in this period.</p><p>While the new coronavirus was crashing the economy in other ways, the sex tech industry was one of the few that actually saw improvements, likely due to people all over the world being advised, encouraged, and in some instances forced to stay at home.</p><p>Something similar happened in 2008, <a href="https://www.villagevoice.com/2010/08/23/the-great-recession-is-a-turn-on-for-the-sex-toy-industry/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">during the recession</a>: the sex toy industry was one of the only industries at the time that didn't gravely suffer. </p><p><strong>The evolution of sex tech from stone dildos to artificial intelligence.</strong></p><p><a href="https://sofiagray.com/what-is-the-history-of-sex-toys-from-stone-to-silicone-and-beyond/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The history of sex toys</a> is quite interesting. A 28,000-year-old siltstone dildo was uncovered in Germany in 2005. Luxury bronze dildos have also been found in China that are at least 2,000 years old.</p><p>Aside from various materials being shaped into dildos, there has always been an interest in how to advance sex technology, even before it involved actual technology at all.</p><ul><li>The 1700s: Steam-powered vibrators (such as the Manipulator).</li><li>The 1800s—1900s: The invention of the first electric vibrator (the Pulsoson) and "beauty tools" being used for sexual satisfaction (such as the Polar Cub massager)</li><li>The 1920s—1940s: The introduction of hand-held massagers (the Andis Vibrator) and compact devices (such as the Oster Stim-U-Lax)</li><li>The 1940s—1960s: Japan introduced the "Cadillac of Vibrators" (The Hitachi Magic Wand), which eventually made it's way to America.</li><li>1965: The invention of silicone, which most modern sex toys are made of.</li><li>The 1980s—1990s: The invention of the rabbit-style vibrator, made more popular with one of the first showings of a sex toy on television ("Sex and the City"). </li><li>The 2000s: Visual porn website Pornhub launched and sex toys became increasingly popular. Erotic literature also became more common and popular, with "50 Shades of Grey" and others like it. </li><li>The 2010s and beyond: Sex toys and technology start to blend, and the world's first internet-controlled sex toy was launched in 2010 by Lovense.</li></ul><p>In 2016, "Harmony", <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cN8sJz50Ng" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the world's first AI sex robot</a> was designed by a tech firm called Realbotix. </p>
From television shows to real-life applications, artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming more and more popular in all areas of human life.
Credit: Willyam Bradberry on Shutterstock<p>In 2020, more than one in five Americans (22 percent) say they would consider having sex with a robot. <a href="https://today.yougov.com/topics/science/articles-reports/2020/03/19/2020-both-men-and-women-are-more-likely-consider-h" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">YouGov conducted a study</a> in February 2020 that compared results from a similar study from 2017.<br></p><p>According to the results, 6 percent more people in 2020 are comfortable with the idea of having sex with a robot than in 2017.</p><p>YouGov points out that the increase in consideration is particularly significant among American adults between the ages of 18-34 years old. Additionally, how people feel about having sex with a robot has also changed. In 2020, 27 percent of Americans said they would consider it cheating if they had a partner who had sex with a robot during the relationship, compared to the 32 percent reported in 2017.</p><p><strong>"If you had a partner who had sex with a robot, would you consider it cheating?"</strong></p><p>The results from this interesting study also reveal that many people (42 percent) believe having sex with a robot is safer than having sex with a human stranger.</p><p>Robots (and robotic tech) already play a vital role in speeding up manufacturing, packaging, and processing across various industries. From television shows to real-life applications, artificial intelligence is becoming more and more popular in all areas of human life.</p><p>According to YouGov, "a <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-07-12/amazon-plans-high-end-echo-ramps-up-work-on-alexa-home-robot" target="_blank">Bloomberg</a> report outlining Amazon's plans for an Alexa-powered robot that follows and helps you around the home may redefine how these machines service humans in the near future." </p>
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- The changes may indicate the coming reversal of the North and South Poles.
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