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After studying this chapter, you should be able to:


  • Describe the basic features of the neural elements in the olfactory epithelium and olfactory bulb.
  • Describe signal transduction in odorant receptors.
  • Outline the pathway by which impulses generated in the olfactory epithelium reach the olfactory cortex.
  • Describe the location and cellular composition of taste buds.
  • Name the five major taste receptors and signal transduction mechanisms in these receptors.
  • Outline the pathways by which impulses generated in taste receptors reach the insular cortex.


Smell (olfaction) and taste (gustation) are generally classified as visceral senses because of their close association with gastrointestinal function. Physiologically, they are related to each other. The flavors of various foods are in large part a combination of their taste and smell. Consequently, food may taste “different” if one has a cold that depresses the sense of smell. Both smell and taste receptors are chemoreceptors that are stimulated by molecules in solution in mucus in the nose and saliva in the mouth. Because stimuli arrive from an external source, they are also classified as exteroceptors. The sensations of smell and taste allow individuals to distinguish between estimates of up to 30 million compounds that are present in food, predators, and mates and to convert the information received into appropriate behaviors.


Olfactory Epithelium and Olfactory Bulbs


Olfactory sensory neurons are located in a specialized portion of the nasal mucosa, the yellowish pigmented olfactory epithelium. In dogs and other animals in which the sense of smell is highly developed (macrosmatic animals), the area covered by this membrane is large; in microsmatic animals, such as humans, it is small. In humans, it covers an area of 10 cm2 in the roof of the nasal cavity near the septum (Figure 11–1). The olfactory epithelium is said to be the place in the body where the nervous system is closest to the external world.

Figure 11–1
Graphic Jump Location

Structure of the olfactory epithelium. There are three cell types: olfactory sensory neurons, supporting (sustentacular) cells, and basal stem cells at the base of the epithelium. Each olfactory sensory neuron has a dendrite that projects to the epithelial surface. Numerous cilia protrude into the mucosal layer lining the nasal lumen. Odorants bind to specific odorant receptors on the cilia and initiate a cascade of events leading to generation of action potentials in the sensory axon. Each olfactory sensory neuron has a single axon that projects to the olfactory bulb, a small ovoid structure that rests on the cribriform plate of the ethmoid bone. (From Kandel ER, Schwartz JH, Jessell TM [editors]: Principles of Neural Science, 4th ed. McGraw-Hill, 2000.)


The human olfactory epithelium contains about 50 million bipolar olfactory sensory neurons interspersed with glia-like supporting (sustentacular) cells and basal stem cells. New olfactory sensory neurons are ...

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