Philosophical Society of Washington

There Is Smell in Your Life – How It Got There, How It Works, and What Happens to It when You Age

Robert I. Henkin
Center for Molecular Nutrition and Sensory Disorders, Taste and Smell Clinic


2016th Meeting Abstract
Friday, October 15, 1993 at 8:15 PM

Abstract:

Living organisms initially used the sense of smell as a pH detector (a chemo-sensor) but later as a distance detector for nutrient and mate finding. Smell in humans depends upon special receptors that contain no blood vessels, lymphatics, or indications of cell division yet turn over relatively rapidly. Instead, the receptors depend upon proteins and growth factors from their local environment to supply specific nutritional factors for cellular metabolism and turnover.

Many factors influence olfactory function including hormones, vitamins, neuro- transmitters, and peptides whose primary function have been considered unrelated to olfaction. Abnormalities of smell affect 16 million people in the U.S. today. Smell abnormalities fall into two major categories - loss of acuity and presence of smell distortion. Loss of acuity relates to the inability to smell environmental vapors. Smell distortion relates to the presence of an obnoxious odor relative to a smell normally considered pleasant or to an olfactory hallucination which is in reality a phantom odor. Most of what we call taste is in reality smell and without this sense, the world would be flavorless. Aging plays a specific role in smell perception which is not always downhill since the system works through specific biochemical parameters in which methods for repair are readily available.

About the Author:

Mr. Henkin received his PhD in Music from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1956, and his MD from UCLA in 1959. He joined the National Institutes of Health in 1961, becoming Chief of the Section on Neuroendocrinology in 1969. He went to the Georgetown University Medical Center in 1975 where he was Professor of Neurology and Pediatrics, and Head of the Center for Molecular Nutrition and Sensory Disorders and the Taste and Smell Clinic. Since 1986, the Center for Molecular Nutrition and Sensory Disorders and the Taste and Smell Clinic have been in the private sector. Mr. Henkin founded in 1988 Sialon, a private corporation devoted to the study of biochemistry and application of salivary proteins in the diagnosis and treatment of human disease.

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