A new study suggests that humans are gradually losing their sense of smell


According to a study, people possess various versions of two scent receptors for musk and body odour, which suggests that humans’ sense of smell is steadily disappearing.

Olfactory receptors detect substances in the air that enter our noses, but smell receptors differ greatly from person to person.

In this new study, Bingjie Li of the Shanghai Institute of Nutrition and Health and colleagues asked 1,000 Han Chinese people and 364 ethnically diverse people from New York to take a whiff of 10 scents, including two odours that people often perceive differently or not at all: a synthetic musk called Galaxolide, and a key molecule associated with body odour from human underarms.

What they found supports a long-standing hypothesis that human sense of smell may have degraded over time due to changes in the genes that encode our smell receptors. Not everyone agrees with that hypothesis, however (more on that later).

The researchers discovered two new scent receptors: one for Galaxolide, a ‘clean’, sweet, and powdery smell found in many fragrances, and another for 3M2H, one of around 120 chemicals that make up human body odour.

Read: A new study suggests that humans are gradually losing their sense of smell

People’s perceptions of scents were affected by mutations in the genes encoding these receptors, but genetics only explains a small part of the difference.

“The typical [olfactory] study focuses on Western participants, who live in a culture where olfaction is not particularly elaborated,” psychologist Asifa Majid from Radboud University told Yong in 2017.

“But people in other parts of the world are better at odor detection, discrimination and naming,” such as the Jahai people of Malaysia, Majid said.

Maybe most of us are just out of practice.

The study was published in PLOS Genetics.

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