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Keywords:

  • expertise;
  • functional plasticity;
  • olfaction;
  • fMRI;
  • perfumers

Abstract

Areas of expertise that cultivate specific sensory domains reveal the brain's ability to adapt to environmental change. Perfumers are a small population who claim to have a unique ability to generate olfactory mental images. To evaluate the impact of this expertise on the brain regions involved in odor processing, we measured brain activity in novice and experienced (student and professional) perfumers while they smelled or imagined odors. We demonstrate that olfactory imagery activates the primary olfactory (piriform) cortex (PC) in all perfumers, demonstrating that similar neural substrates were activated in odor perception and imagination. In professional perfumers, extensive olfactory practice influences the posterior PC, the orbitofrontal cortex, and the hippocampus; during the creation of mental images of odors, the activity in these areas was negatively correlated with experience. Thus, the perfumers' expertise is associated with a functional reorganization of key olfactory and memory brain regions, explaining their extraordinary ability to imagine odors and create fragrances. Hum Brain Mapp, 2012. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.