Irritation and negative valence are closely associated in perception. However, these perceptual aspects can be dissociated in olfaction where irritation can accompany both pleasant and unpleasant odorants. Whereas the sensation of odor reflects transduction at olfactory receptors, irritation reflects concurrent transduction of the odorant at trigeminal receptors. Thus a stimulus can be either a pure olfactant activating the olfactory receptors only or a bimodal odorant activating both types of receptors. Using event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging and a 2 x 2 experimental design contrasting odorant valence (pleasant/unpleasant) and odorant type (pure olfactant/bimodal) we found activity in piriform cortex to be associated with valence, and not type, of odors. In contrast, activity in the olfactory tubercle was associated with type, and not valence, of odors. Importantly, this was found when perceived intensity was held equal across odorants. These findings suggest that dissociable neural substrates subserve the encoding of irritation and valence in olfaction.
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