Chapter 9. Hearing, Vestibular Perception, Taste, and Smell
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By SINDYA N. BHANOO The human brain responds to music in different ways, depending on the listener’s emotional reaction, among other things. Now researchers report that the same holds true for birds listening to birdsong. “The same regions that respond to music in humans, at least the areas that can also be found in the bird brain, responded to song in our sparrows,” said an author of the new report, Donna Maney, a neuroscientist at Emory University. Primed with estrogen to simulate their state during breeding, female white-throated sparrows responded to the songs of male sparrows in the same way as humans listening to pleasant music, she said. Females in a nonbreeding state responded no differently to birdsong than to generic tones of the same frequencies. “So during breeding season, birdsong is received differently by females,” Dr. Maney said. Moreover, male birds treated with testosterone showed a response in the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center, when they heard other males singing. The response is akin to the reaction humans have when they hear the sort of music used in a scary movie scene. “If you’re a male and you hear the song, it means that you’re invading territory or being invaded,” Dr. Maney said. “It’s an aggressive signal.” © 2012 The New York Times Company
Julian Richards, deputy editor, newscientist.com Let's take it from the top again... Human singing stars these days rely on Auto-Tune technology to produce the right pitch, but this songbird does it the old way - by listening out for its own mistakes. And it's also smart enough to ignore notes that are too far off to be true. Brains monitor their owners' physical actions via the senses, and use this feedback to correct mistakes in those actions. Many models of learning assume that the bigger the perceived mistake, the bigger the correction will be. Samuel Sober at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and Michael Brainard of the University of California, San Francisco, suspected that the system is a bit cleverer than that - otherwise, for instance, a bird might over-correct its singing if it confused external sounds with its own voice, or if its brain made a mistake in processing sounds. They decided to fool Bengalese finches into thinking that they were singing out of tune, and measured what happened at different levels of this apparent tone-deafness. To do this, they fitted the birds with the stylish headphones shown in the photo above and fed them back the sound of their own singing, processed to sound sharper than it really was. The researchers sharpened the birdsong by degrees ranging from a quarter-tone to one-and-a-half tones. They found that the birds learned to "correct" their pitch more accurately and more quickly when they heard a smaller mistake than when they heard a large one. It was also clear that the bird brains took "errors" seriously when they fell within the normal range of pitches in the bird's song: the birds seemed to ignore errors outside this range. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd
By Wynne Parry and LiveScience NEW YORK — While jazz musician Vijay Iyer played a piece on the piano, he wore an expression of intense concentration. Afterward, everyone wanted to know: What was going on in his head? The way this music is often taught, "they tell you, you must not be thinking when you are playing," Iyer said after finishing his performance of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," a piece that requires improvisation. "I think that is an impoverished view of what thought is. … Thought is distributed through all of our actions." Iyer's performance opened a panel discussion on music and the mind at the New York Academy of Sciences on Wednesday (Dec. 13). Music elicits "a splash" of activity in many parts of the brain, said panelist Jamshed Bharucha, a neuroscientist and musician, after moderator Steve Paulson of the public radio program "To the Best of Our Knowledge" asked about the brain's response to music. "I think you are asking a question we can only scratch the surface of in terms of what goes on in the brain," Bharucha said. [Why Music Moves Us] Creativity in the brain scanner Charles Limb, a surgeon who studies the neuroscience of music, is attempting to better understand creativity by putting jazz musicians and rappers in a brain-imaging scanner called a functional MRI, which measures blood flow in the brain, and asking them to create music or rap once in there. © 2012 Scientific American
By DOUGLAS MARTIN Dr. William F. House, a medical researcher who braved skepticism to invent the cochlear implant, an electronic device considered to be the first to restore a human sense, died on Dec. 7 at his home in Aurora, Ore. He was 89. The cause was metastatic melanoma, his daughter, Karen House, said. Dr. House pushed against conventional thinking throughout his career. Over the objections of some, he introduced the surgical microscope to ear surgery. Tackling a form of vertigo that doctors had believed was psychosomatic, he developed a surgical procedure that enabled the first American in space to travel to the moon. Peering at the bones of the inner ear, he found enrapturing beauty. Even after his ear-implant device had largely been supplanted by more sophisticated, and more expensive, devices, Dr. House remained convinced of his own version’s utility and advocated that it be used to help the world’s poor. Today, more than 200,000 people in the world have inner-ear implants, a third of them in the United States. A majority of young deaf children receive them, and most people with the implants learn to understand speech with no visual help. Hearing aids amplify sound to help the hearing-impaired. But many deaf people cannot hear at all because sound cannot be transmitted to their brains, however much it is amplified. This is because the delicate hair cells that line the cochlea, the liquid-filled spiral cavity of the inner ear, are damaged. When healthy, these hairs — more than 15,000 altogether — translate mechanical vibrations produced by sound into electrical signals and deliver them to the auditory nerve. Dr. House’s cochlear implant electronically translated sound into mechanical vibrations. His initial device, implanted in 1961, was eventually rejected by the body. But after refining its materials, he created a long-lasting version and implanted it in 1969. © 2012 The New York Times Company
by Kai Kupferschmidt Human beings tend to avoid places that smell of urine. But to mice, there is something positively addictive about the scent; they like to go back to a spot where they found the excretions again and again. Now, researchers have discovered that this behavior is triggered by a single protein in the urine of male mice. Mice use scent to mark their territory, advertise their social dominance, and convey information about their health and reproductive status. But these are usually volatile pheromones that disperse quickly, and it has remained unclear what exactly stimulates a female to be attracted to a specific male. Previous research had shown that female laboratory mice often return to a place where they have come across cage bedding soiled by males. Now, researchers at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom have confirmed this. Female mice spent five times as much time in a place where they had encountered a dish with male urine than at a place where they encountered water. Just 10 minutes of exposure to the urine was enough for the mice to show this place preference even after 14 days. However, if the mice were prevented from by a mesh screen touching the urine with their nose, the place seemed to lose its attractiveness. "That suggested that the story was not as simple as everybody assumed and volatile pheromones were not responsible," says behavioral ecologist Jane Hurst, one of the authors of the study. By separating the urine into different fractions, the scientists showed that a protein called darcin that they had identified in 2005—and which mice can only detect if their noses touch the urine—is responsible for the frequent visits. Pure darcin, produced in cell culture in the lab, elicited the same reaction, the authors report online today in Science. © 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
By Scicurious I would like to start this post with a challenge. Can you get through this entire post WITHOUT feeling itchy? I know I couldn’t even write the first line. And I’m not alone. Itch is contagious. Watching someone else scratch can make you itch, and you should try to get through a lecture on a skin condition. I wonder how dermatologists can take it. What IS an itch? The clinical definition is that it’s an “unpleasant sensation associated with the urge to scratch”. Ok, then. Itching is a very important part of clinical diagnosis, from things like poison ivy to allergies to severe use of methamphetamine. In addition, there is a psychological disorder of severe itch which can be both disfiguring and incredibly distressing. But where does it come from and why do we itch? There’s an obvious evolutionary reason (OMG a spider on my arm getitoffgetitoffgetitioff!!!!), but what about social itch? We know about the neurobiological “itch matrix”, which involves areas of the brain associated with touch and somatosensory processing, the premotor areas (for scratching), the anterior insula, prefrontal cortex, thalamus, and cerebellum. From a combination of all of these areas (accompanied, of course, by other things like the visual areas to process seeing the spider on your hand), you get an itch and a scartching response, and other involved areas (like the insula and cingulate) may help make it unpleasant enough for you to want to deal with it. All of these areas are also associated with the processing of other stimuli, like touch and pain, which may contribute to the sensation of itch. © 2012 Scientific American,
By WILLIAM J. BROAD When a hurricane forced the Nautilus to dive in Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” Captain Nemo took the submarine down to a depth of 25 fathoms, or 150 feet. There, to the amazement of the novel’s protagonist, Prof. Pierre Aronnax, no whisper of the howling turmoil could be heard. “What quiet, what silence, what peace!” he exclaimed. That was 1870. Today — to the dismay of whale lovers and friends of marine mammals, if not divers and submarine captains — the ocean depths have become a noisy place. The causes are human: the sonar blasts of military exercises, the booms from air guns used in oil and gas exploration, and the whine from fleets of commercial ships that relentlessly crisscross the global seas. Nature has its own undersea noises. But the new ones are loud and ubiquitous. Marine experts say the rising clamor is particularly dangerous to whales, which depend on their acute hearing to locate food and one another. To fight the din, the federal government is completing the first phase of what could become one of the world’s largest efforts to curb the noise pollution and return the sprawling ecosystem to a quieter state. The project, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, seeks to document human-made noises in the ocean and transform the results into the world’s first large sound maps. The ocean visualizations use bright colors to symbolize the sounds radiating out through the oceanic depths, frequently over distances of hundreds of miles. © 2012 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 17589 - Posted: 12.11.2012
By David Brown, We all know that when it comes to enjoying food, taste and smell go hand in hand. But how and where they hold hands in the neural circuits of the brain has been something of a mystery. Neuroscientists have known for a while that odor receptors in the nose send signals to the the brain’s taste center, also known as the gustatory cortex. But does the converse happen? Do taste receptors in the tongue talk to the smell center, the olfactory cortex? New research suggests the answer is yes. The smell center gets and uses information from the tongue even if an animal is not consciously sniffing — or even inhaling. “We know there is a sense of smell in the taste system. What’s new is that we now know that smell, like taste, can’t really work on its own, either,” said Donald B. Katz, a neuroscientist at Brandeis University who co-authored the study. “What this means is that the different senses are really interacting with each other at a much earlier level than previously thought,” said Joost X. Maier, the postdoctoral researcher at Brandeis who did the experiments reported in the current issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. One can construct reasons why this might be the best way to design the brain. But the brain arose by chance, interacting with the world and sculpted by natural selection. For virtually all forms of life, taste and smell were experienced together in the act of finding and consuming food. © 1996-2012 The Washington Post
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 17573 - Posted: 12.04.2012
A fondness for the burn of spicy food has less to do with tolerance and far more to do with personality, according to a new study. Researchers from Pennsylvania State University have found a love of chili is associated with sensation seeking and reward, but found no evidence that chili lovers get desensitized to chili burn over time. "Rather than merely showing reduced response to the irritating qualities of capsaicin (the compound that gives chili its burn) as might be expected—these findings support the hypothesis that personality differences may drive differences in spicy food liking and intake," the authors wrote in the journal Food Quality and Preference. "We always assumed that liking drives intake—we eat what we like and we like what we eat. But no one had actually directly bothered to connect these personality traits of sensation seeking with intake of chilli peppers," says lead author and self-confessed chili lover Professor John Hayes. The discovery of a relationship between fondness for chilli and sensitivity to reward was also new, says Hayes who is an assistant professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University. Nearly one hundred volunteers were given liquid samples of capsaicin and asked to swill it in their mouth for three seconds before spitting out. They were then asked to rate the burning sensation and, in a separate questionnaire, rate their liking of various foods. © CBC 2012
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 17572 - Posted: 12.04.2012
Roger Dobson Love, according to romantics, can have a dramatic effect on the senses: striking lovers blind, deaf or rendering them tongue-tied. But the simple answer to the question of whether any relationship is "the one" seems to be that your ideal man or woman gets up your nose. New research suggests a sense of smell is vital for a good long-term relationship. In the new study, reported in the journal Biological Psychology, researchers looked for the first time at the effect of being born without a sense on smell on men and women's relationships. The research involved analysing data on men and women aged 18 to 46 with no sense of smell and comparing it with information gleaned from a healthy control group. The results showed that men and women who were unable to smell had higher levels of social insecurity, although this manifested itself in different ways. In men, but not in women, it led to fewer relationships. The men with a faulty sense of smell averaged two partners compared with 10 for healthy men. One theory is that the lack of a sense of smell may make men less adventurous. They may have more problems assessing and communicating with other people. They may also be concerned about how they are perceived by others, and worry about their own body odour. © independent.co.uk
By Christina Agapakis White is a mixture, made by a combination of signals at equal intensity across a perceptual space. White light can be split up into all the colors of the visible spectrum, and white noise covers a range of frequencies within the audible range. Our other senses don’t have as clearly defined ranges of perception. We can’t give a smell, a taste, or a texture a number the same way that a color or a tone can be defined by a wavelength, but a fascinating recent paper shows that by mixing many different smelly molecules at equal intensities, our perception of the odor will converge on “olfactory white.” The researchers created this strangely neutral smell from different mixtures of up to thirty odors, chosen from a set of 86 molecules that represent a wide range of the kinds of things that we can smell. Human “olfactory stimulus space” contains thousands of molecules, from the fragrant and floral to the putrid. We can distinguish and name many smells, but odors don’t map neatly onto a one dimensional spectrum. Sampling the multidimensional stimulus space of odors requires a much more complicated mapping of the smell universe. The figure on the left shows the position of the 86 molecules within two maps of olfactory stimulus space. The first is based on the way that we perceive odors (perceptual space, A) and the second based on the chemical structures of the molecules (physicochemical space, B). The perceptual map is built with data from Dravnieks’ Atlas of Odor Character Profiles of 144 different molecules. Each smell was compared by 150 professional noses against a list of 146 different odor descriptions like “fruity” “etherish” “decayed” or “seasoning for meat.” © 2012 Scientific American,
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 17547 - Posted: 11.28.2012
Alla Katsnelson Human eyes, set as they are in front-facing sockets, give us a limited angle of view: we see what is directly in front of us, with only a few degrees of peripheral vision. But bats can broaden and narrow their 'visual field' by modulating the frequency of the squeaks they use to navigate and find prey, researchers in Denmark suggest today in Nature1. Bats find their way through the night by emitting sonar signals and using the echoes that return to them to create a map of their surroundings — a process called echolocation. Researchers have long known that small bats emit higher-frequency squeaks than larger bats, and most assumed that the difference arises because the smaller animals must catch smaller insects, from which low-frequency sound waves with long wavelengths do not reflect well. That didn't sound right to Annemarie Surlykke, a neurobiologist who studies bat echolocation at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. “When you look at the actual frequencies, small bats would be able to detect even the smallest prey they take with a much lower frequency,” she says. “So there must be another reason.” Surlykke and her colleagues decided to test the hypothesis by studying six related species of bat that varied in size. They captured the animals in the wild and set them loose in a flight room — a pitch-dark netted corridor 2.5 metres high, 4.8 metres wide and 7 metres long, rigged on all sides with microphones and infrared cameras. “It’s a pretty confined space, so this corresponds to flying close to vegetation,” says Surlykke. © 2012 Nature Publishing Group
Link ID: 17536 - Posted: 11.26.2012
by Sid Perkins If you play sounds of many different frequencies at the same time, they combine to produce neutral "white noise." Neuroscientists say they have created an analogous generic scent by blending odors. Such "olfactory white" might rarely, if ever, be found in nature, but it could prove useful in research, other scientists say. Using just a few hundred types of biochemical receptors, each of which respond to just a few odorants, the human nose can distinguish thousands of different odors. Yet humans can't easily identify the individual components of a mixture, even when they can identify the odors alone, says Noam Sobel, a neuroscientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. Now, he and his colleagues suggest, various blends made up of a large number of odors all begin to smell the same—even when the blends share no common components. For their study, the researchers used 86 nontoxic odorants that had a wide variety of chemical and physical properties such as molecular structure, molecular weight, and volatility. Those chemicals also spanned a perceptual scale from "pleasant" to "unpleasant" and another such scale on which scents were judged to range from "edible" to "poisonous." The researchers then diluted the chemicals so that their odors were equally intense. Finally, they created mixtures by dripping individual odorants onto separate regions of an absorptive pad in a jar, a technique that prevented the substances from reacting in liquid form to create new substances or odors. The odor blends contained anywhere from one to 43 of the chemicals, Sobel says. © 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 17510 - Posted: 11.20.2012
Scientists have reversed paralysis in dogs after injecting them with cells grown from the lining of their nose. The pets had all suffered spinal injuries which prevented them from using their back legs. The Cambridge University team is cautiously optimistic the technique could eventually have a role in the treatment of human patients. The study is the first to test the transplant in "real-life" injuries rather than laboratory animals. The only part of the body where nerve fibres continue to grow in adults is the olfactory system. Found in the at the back of the nasal cavity, olfactory ensheathing cells (OEC) surround the receptor neurons that both enable us to smell and convey these signals to the brain. The nerve cells need constant replacement which is promoted by the OECs. For decades scientists have thought OECs might be useful in spinal cord repair. Initial trials using OECs in humans have suggested the procedure is safe. In the study, funded by the Medical Research Council and published in the neurology journal Brain, the dogs had olfactory ensheathing cells from the lining of their nose removed. These were grown and expanded for several weeks in the laboratory. BBC © 2012
by Douglas Heaven All the better to hear you with, my dear. A chance discovery has revealed that some insects have evolved mammal-like ears, with an analogous three-part structure that includes a fluid-filled vessel similar to the mammalian cochlea. Fernando Montealegre-Z at the University of Lincoln, UK, and colleagues were studying the vibration of the tympanal membrane – a taut membrane that works like an eardrum – in the foreleg of Copiphora gorgonensis, a species of katydid from the South American rainforest, when they noticed tiny vibrations in the rigid cuticle behind the membrane. When they dissected the leg behind that membrane, they unexpectedly burst a vessel filled with high-pressure fluid. The team analysed the fluid to confirm that it was not part of the insect's circulatory system and concluded instead that it played a cochlea-like role in sound detection. In most insects, sound vibrations transmit directly to neuronal sensors which sit behind the tympanal membrane. Mammals have evolved tiny bones called ossicles that transfer vibrations from the eardrum to the fluid-filled cochlea. The analogous structure in the katydid is a vibrating plate, exposed to the air on one side and fluid on the other. Smallest ear In mammals, the cochlea analyses a sound's frequency – how high or low it is – and the new structure found by the team appears to do the same job. Spanning only 600 micrometres, it is the smallest known ear of its kind in nature. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
by Elizabeth Norton Stop that noise! Many creatures, such as human babies, chimpanzees, and chicks, react negatively to dissonance—harsh, unstable, grating sounds. Since the days of the ancient Greeks, scientists have wondered why the ear prefers harmony. Now, scientists suggest that the reason may go deeper than an aversion to the way clashing notes abrade auditory nerves; instead, it may lie in the very structure of the ear and brain, which are designed to respond to the elegantly spaced structure of a harmonious sound. "Over the past century, researchers have tried to relate the perception of dissonance to the underlying acoustics of the signals," says psychoacoustician Marion Cousineau of the University of Montreal in Canada. In a musical chord, for example, several notes combine to produce a sound wave containing all of the individual frequencies of each tone. Specifically, the wave contains the base, or "fundamental," frequency for each note plus multiples of that frequency known as harmonics. Upon reaching the ear, these frequencies are carried by the auditory nerve to the brain. If the chord is harmonic, or "consonant," the notes are spaced neatly enough so that the individual fibers of the auditory nerve carry specific frequencies to the brain. By perceiving both the parts and the harmonious whole, the brain responds to what scientists call harmonicity. In a dissonant chord, however, some of the notes and their harmonics are so close together that two notes will stimulate the same set of auditory nerve fibers. This clash gives the sound a rough quality known as beating, in which the almost-equal frequencies interfere to create a warbling sound. Most researchers thought that phenomenon accounted for the unpleasantness of a dissonance. © 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Link ID: 17486 - Posted: 11.13.2012
By SETH S. HOROWITZ HERE’S a trick question. What do you hear right now? If your home is like mine, you hear the humming sound of a printer, the low throbbing of traffic from the nearby highway and the clatter of plastic followed by the muffled impact of paws landing on linoleum — meaning that the cat has once again tried to open the catnip container atop the fridge and succeeded only in knocking it to the kitchen floor. The slight trick in the question is that, by asking you what you were hearing, I prompted your brain to take control of the sensory experience — and made you listen rather than just hear. That, in effect, is what happens when an event jumps out of the background enough to be perceived consciously rather than just being part of your auditory surroundings. The difference between the sense of hearing and the skill of listening is attention. Hearing is a vastly underrated sense. We tend to think of the world as a place that we see, interacting with things and people based on how they look. Studies have shown that conscious thought takes place at about the same rate as visual recognition, requiring a significant fraction of a second per event. But hearing is a quantitatively faster sense. While it might take you a full second to notice something out of the corner of your eye, turn your head toward it, recognize it and respond to it, the same reaction to a new or sudden sound happens at least 10 times as fast. This is because hearing has evolved as our alarm system — it operates out of line of sight and works even while you are asleep. And because there is no place in the universe that is totally silent, your auditory system has evolved a complex and automatic “volume control,” fine-tuned by development and experience, to keep most sounds off your cognitive radar unless they might be of use as a signal that something dangerous or wonderful is somewhere within the kilometer or so that your ears can detect. © 2012 The New York Times Company
by Will Ferguson For the first time, an electrical device has been powered by the ear alone. The team behind the technology used a natural electrochemical gradient in cells within the inner ear of a guinea pig to power a wireless transmitter for up to five hours. The technique could one day provide an autonomous power source for brain and cochlear implants, says Tina Stankovic, an auditory neuroscientist at Harvard University Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. Nerve cells use the movement of positively charged sodium ions and negatively charged potassium ions across a membrane to create an electrochemical gradient that drives neural signals. Some cells in the cochlear have the same kind of gradient, which is used to convert the mechanical force of the vibrating eardrum into electrical signals that the brain can understand. Tiny voltage A major challenge in tapping such electrical potential is that the voltage created is tiny – a fraction of that generated by a standard AA battery. "We have known about DC potential in the human ear for 60 years but no one has attempted to harness it," Stankovic says. Now, Stankovic and her colleagues have developed an electronic chip containing several tiny, low resistance electrodes that can harness a small amount of this electrical activity without damaging hearing. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Tia Ghose, LiveScience Humans can smell fear and disgust, and the emotions are contagious, according to a new study. The findings, published Nov. 5 in the journal Psychological Science, suggest that humans communicate via smell just like other animals. "These findings are contrary to the commonly accepted assumption that human communication runs exclusively via language or visual channels," write Gün Semin and colleagues from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Most animals communicate using smell, but because humans lack the same odor-sensing organs, scientists thought we had long ago lost our ability to smell fear or other emotions. To find out, the team collected sweat from under the armpits of 10 men while they watched either frightening scenes from the horror movie "The Shining" or repulsive clips of MTV's "Jackass." Next, the researchers asked 36 women to take a visual test while they unknowingly inhaled the scent of men's sweat. When women sniffed "fear sweat," they opened their eyes wide in a scared expression, while those smelling sweat from disgusted men scrunched their faces into a repulsed grimace. (The team chose men as the sweat donors and women as the receivers because past research suggests women are more sensitive to men's scent than vice versa.) © 2012 NBCNews.com
by Joel Winston Never mind the bitter end – it is the bitter beginning of an infection that triggers an immune response. We know that taste receptors on the tongue can detect bitter foods, but it turns out that there are also identical taste receptors in the upper airway. Noam Cohen at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and his team think they know why. They grew cell cultures from sinus tissue samples collected from surgical patients, and found that bitter taste receptors in the tissue picked up the presence of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterium that can cause pneumonia. The sinus tissue responded by producing nitric oxide to kill the invading microbes. "Certain people have strong innate defences against these bacteria, which is based on their ability to detect bitterness," says Cohen. "Others who don't really 'taste' these bitter compounds have a weakened defence." The research could lead to nasal sprays designed to activate the taste receptors and boost people's natural defences against sinus infections. "This is probably the most exciting clinical link found for bitter receptors," says Liquan Huang of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who was not involved in the study. "However, further work is needed to see if this can be translated into treatments." Journal reference: Journal of Clinical Investigation, doi.org/jj4 © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.