High-precision mapping reveals the structure of odor coding in the human brain

Vivek Sagar, Laura K. Shanahan, Christina M. Zelano, Jay A. Gottfried, Thorsten Kahnt*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Odor perception is inherently subjective. Previous work has shown that odorous molecules evoke distributed activity patterns in olfactory cortices, but how these patterns map on to subjective odor percepts remains unclear. In the present study, we collected neuroimaging responses to 160 odors from 3 individual subjects (18 h per subject) to probe the neural coding scheme underlying idiosyncratic odor perception. We found that activity in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) represents the fine-grained perceptual identity of odors over and above coarsely defined percepts, whereas this difference is less pronounced in the piriform cortex (PirC) and amygdala. Furthermore, the implementation of perceptual encoding models enabled us to predict olfactory functional magnetic resonance imaging responses to new odors, revealing that the dimensionality of the encoded perceptual spaces increases from the PirC to the OFC. Whereas encoding of lower-order dimensions generalizes across subjects, encoding of higher-order dimensions is idiosyncratic. These results provide new insights into cortical mechanisms of odor coding and suggest that subjective olfactory percepts reside in the OFC.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1595-1602
Number of pages8
JournalNature neuroscience
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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