Configural and elemental coding of natural odor mixture components in the human brain

James D. Howard*, Jay A. Gottfried

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Most real-world odors are complex mixtures of distinct molecular components. Olfactory systems can adopt different strategies to contend with this stimulus complexity. In elemental processing, odor perception is derived from the sum of its parts; inconfigural processing, the parts are integrated into unique perceptual wholes. Here we used gas-chromatography/mass-spectrometry techniques to deconstruct a complex natural food smell and assess whether olfactory salience is confined to the whole odor or is also embodied in its parts. By implementing an fMRI sensory-specific satiety paradigm, we identified reward-based changes in orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) for the whole odor and for a small subset of components. Moreover, component-specific changes in OFC-amygdala connectivity correlated with perceived value. Our findings imply that the human brain has direct access to the elemental content of a natural food odor, and highlight the dynamic capacity of the olfactory system to engage both object-level and component-level mechanisms to subserve behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)857-869
Number of pages13
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 19 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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