Blood Cells Are Attracted to Good Food Smells

By Breanna Draxler | April 8, 2013 12:50 pm

The nose is made for whiffing odors, but apparently it is not the only organ in the human body with a sense of smell. Researchers in Germany have found that heart, lung and blood cells, among others, also have olfactory receptors.

When you walk by a pizza joint, chemical odors waft through the air and latch onto olfactory receptors in your nose. These receptors trigger a series of reactions in your brain, ultimately resulting in your identifying the particular combination of scents associated with steaming tomato sauce and melting mozzarella cheese. Based on these neural messages, your brain decides whether those odors are delicious or unappetizing, and chooses foods accordingly.

But in recent years scientists have learned that your nose is not alone when it comes to its ability to sniff. For example, human sperm rely on olfactory cells [UPDATE: olfactory receptors] to interpret chemical cues that help them find and wiggle their way toward unfertilized eggs. Now researchers in Germany say cells in our blood, heart and lungs share a similar sense of smell, according to their findings presented at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society over the weekend.

The researchers, based at the Technical University of Munich, set up an experiment to test the response of non-nose receptor cells to chemical odors. They put primary human blood cells on one side of a walled chamber and good-smelling chemicals on the other. These pungent chemicals, called biogenic amines, are found in all sorts of foods and drinks and serve as chemical messengers. With no nose involved, the blood cells in the experiment still moved toward the chemical cues given off by generally yummy foods, like chocolate.

At this point, the researchers aren’t sure what purpose the olfactory receptors serve in these cells. But since the average food contains far more potential odor compounds than our noses can detect, the researchers speculate that something could be going on with these chemicals beyond our nasal cavities. Perhaps your blood cells can “smell” the pizza in your system, or your heart can recognize the scent of the slice after you’ve ingested it.

Understanding the roles of these cells will require further study in the field of “sensomics,” which looks at how the nose and mouth sense food. And it probably requires some taste testing, in which case we’d be happy to volunteer.

Image courtesy of schankz/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
  • John Meyer

    Can you explain how the “primary human blood cells” moved? Were these erythrocytes, which one normally associates with “blood cell”, or another type of blood cell?

    • Breanna Draxler

      There was no direct mention of erythrocytes, but here’s the description of the experiment in which the primary blood cells moved: Schieberle described one experiment in which scientists put an attractant odorant compound on one side of a partitioned multi-well chamber, and blood cells on the other side. The blood cells moved toward the odor.

  • David Lorentzen

    This statement is confusing “For example, human sperm rely on olfactory cells to interpret chemical cues…”.

    Sperm are single cell structures, so what is the relationship of sperm with these external “olfactory cells”, and how do they communicate? Should this sentence refer to “olfactory receptors” on the sperm itself?

    • Breanna Draxler

      Yes! That was meant to say olfactory receptors. Thanks for catching it, David. I’ve made the change.


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