July 8, 2015

ASU researcher disputes claim that humans can distinguish 1 trillion odors

(July 8, 2015)  An Arizona State University researcher is calling into question recent findings that the human nose is capable of distinguishing at least 1 trillion odors.

Rick Gerkin, an assistant research professor with ASU School of Life Sciences, said the data used in a study made public last year does not support this claim.

According to Gerkin, this is important because findings from the 2014 study published in the journal Science are already making their way into neuroscience textbooks, misinforming up-and-coming investigators and cutting off potentially productive lines of research that do not adhere to those findings. Researchers from Rockefeller University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute authored that paper.

The new paper challenging the findings appears today in the journal eLife.

“We disagree with several aspects of the 2014 study,” said Gerkin, who co-authored the paper with Jason Castro, a professor with Bates College in Maine. “First, the assertion that humans can discriminate between at least 1 trillion odors is based on a fragile mathematical framework — one that’s capable of creating nearly any result with small variations in the data or the experiment design. So the result in question could be tens of orders of magnitude — a factor of one with dozens of zeros after it — larger or smaller than first reported."

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