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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

An olfactory demography of a diverse metropolitan population

Andreas Keller1, Margaret Hempstead12, Iran A Gomez14, Avery N Gilbert3 and Leslie B Vosshall12*

Author Affiliations

1 Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behaviour, The Rockefeller University, 1230 York Avenue, Box 63, New York, NY, 10065, USA

2 Howard Hughes Medical Institute, The Rockefeller University, 1230 York Avenue, Box 63, New York, NY, 10065, USA

3 Synesthetics, Inc, Montclair, NJ, 07043, USA

4 Present address: St. Vincent Medical Center, Bridgeport, CT, 06606, USA

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BMC Neuroscience 2012, 13:122  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-13-122

Published: 10 October 2012

Abstract

Background

Human perception of the odour environment is highly variable. People vary both in their general olfactory acuity as well as in if and how they perceive specific odours. In recent years, it has been shown that genetic differences contribute to variability in both general olfactory acuity and the perception of specific odours. Odour perception also depends on other factors such as age and gender. Here we investigate the influence of these factors on both general olfactory acuity and on the perception of 66 structurally and perceptually different odours in a diverse subject population.

Results

We carried out a large human olfactory psychophysics study of 391 adult subjects in metropolitan New York City, an ethnically and culturally diverse North American metropolis. 210 of the subjects were women and the median age was 34.6 years (range 19–75). We recorded ~2,300 data points per subject to obtain a comprehensive perceptual phenotype, comprising multiple perceptual measures of 66 diverse odours. We show that general olfactory acuity correlates with gender, age, race, smoking habits, and body type. Young, female, non-smoking subjects had the highest average olfactory acuity. Deviations from normal body type in either direction were associated with decreased olfactory acuity. Beyond these factors we also show that, surprisingly, there are many odour-specific influences of race, age, and gender on olfactory perception. We show over 100 instances in which the intensity or pleasantness perception of an odour is significantly different between two demographic groups.

Conclusions

These data provide a comprehensive snapshot of the olfactory sense of a diverse population. Olfactory acuity in the population is most strongly influenced by age, followed by gender. We also show a large number of diverse correlations between demographic factors and the perception of individual odours that may reflect genetic differences as well as different prior experiences with these odours between demographic groups.

Keywords:
Olfaction; Psychophysics; Demographics