The olfactory system is the sensory system used for olfaction, or the sense of smell. Most mammals and reptiles have two distinct parts to their olfactory system: a main olfactory system and an accessory olfactory system. The main olfactory system detects volatile, airborne substances, while the accessory olfactory system senses fluid-phase stimuli. Behavioral evidence indicates that most often, the stimuli detected by the accessory olfactory system are pheromones.
The olfactory system is often spoken of along with the gustatory system as the chemosensory senses because both transduce chemical signals into perception.
The mechanism of the olfactory system can be divided into a peripheral one, sensing an externalstimulus and encoding it as an electric signal in neurons, and a central one, where all signals are integrated and processed in the central nervous system.
In mammals, the main olfactory system detects odorants that are inhaled through the nose, where they contact the main olfactory epithelium, which contains various olfactory receptors. These olfactory receptors are membrane proteins of bipolar olfactory receptor neurons in the olfactory epithelium. Rather than binding specific ligands like most receptors, olfactory receptors display affinity for a range of odor molecules. Olfactory neurons transduce receptor activation into electrical signals in neurons. The signals travel along the olfactory nerve, which belongs to the peripheral nervous system. This nerve terminates in the olfactory bulb, which belongs to the central nervous system. The complex set of olfactory receptors on different olfactory neurons can distinguish a new odor from the background environmental odors and determine the concentration of the odor.
Axons from the olfactory sensory neurons converge in the olfactory bulb to form tangles called glomeruli (singular glomerulus). Inside the glomerulus, the axons contact the dendrites of mitral cells and several other types of cells. Mitral cells send their axons to a number of brain areas, including the anterior olfactory nucleus, piriform cortex, the medial amygdala, and the entorhinal cortex.
The piriform cortex is probably the area most closely associated with identifying the odor. The medial amygdala is involved in social functions such as mating and the recognition of animals of the same species. The entorhinal cortex is associated with memory, e.g. to pair odors with proper memories. The exact functions of these higher areas are a matter of scientific research and debate.
In the central nervous system, odors are represented as patterns of neural activity. These representations may be encoded by space (a pattern of activated neurons across a given olfactory region corresponds to the odor), time (a pattern of action potentials by multiple neurons corresponds to the odor) or a combination of the two. Scientists debate whether the odor code is primarily temporal or spatial.
After the olfactory cortex has processed the smell, the limbic system forms strong associations between smells, memories and emotions.