Human Body

Nerves and Senses

How does the sense of smell work?

The sense of smell is associated with sensory receptor cells in the upper nasal cavity. The smell, or olfactory, receptors are chemoreceptors. Chemicals that stimulate olfactory receptors enter the nasal cavity as airborne molecules called gases. They must dissolve in the watery fluids that surround the cilia of the olfactory receptor cells before they can be detected. These specialized cells, the olfactory receptor neurons, are the only parts of the nervous system that are in direct contact with the outside environment. The odorous gases then waft up to the olfactory cells, where the chemicals bind to the cilia that line the nasal cavity. That action initiates a nerve impulse being sent through the olfactory cell, into the olfactory nerve fiber, to the olfactory bulb, and to the brain. The brain then knows what the chemical odors are.


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