The Fine Structure and Function of the Human Olfactory System




Arthur H. Rubenstein University Professor

Project Summary

During our PURM experience, we had the opportunity to work alongside members of Dr. Gottfried’s lab in studying the human sense of smell. We examined different components of the olfactory system, from its building blocks, the sensory neurons, to the olfactory system’s connections with various human neurodegenerative diseases. We focused on mapping out the distribution of olfactory receptors and neurons of the olfactory system in humans to better understand its circuitry and workings. We did so by utilizing immunostaining and fluorescence microscopy on human post-mortem and biopsy samples. With these techniques, we were able to obtain digitized data, which we then analyzed to map out olfactory neurons in the human peripheral olfactory system. This has allowed us to begin the process of dissecting and uncovering the complex physiology and make-up of the human olfactory system to better understand its function and role in the human body.

From this research experience, we learned how to carry out many wet lab procedures and immunostaining techniques that we have never done before. From learning the proper procedure in collecting and storing human tissue samples to mounting thin tissue slices onto microscope slides, we had the chance to watch and actually partake in nearly every step of the human olfactory epithelium tissue sample collection and preparation, a key part of the data collection process. We got the incredible opportunity to collect tissue samples from real humans in biopsy cases, see autopsies being carried out when gathering post-mortem tissue samples, work hands-on when mounting tissue slices onto glass slides, and analyze and assess digitized images of sensory neurons from human olfactory tissues. Being able to be a part of the entire process revealed to us the beauty in the complexity of scientific research. To see and be able to contribute to the process of turning human olfactory epithelium tissue into a complete, fluorescent image of sensory neurons on the computer screen allowed us to see how every tiny step and detail in the research process is critical for producing conclusions and knowledge. We were able to experience for ourselves how scientific discoveries and breakthroughs are made by breaking down and assessing large, complex systems via various techniques, such as immunohistochemical analysis. Every part of the research experience and every person in the associated fields, from the surgeons who carefully extracted human olfactory tissue samples for us to collect to the researchers at Dr. Gottfried’s lab who analyze digitized data from the imaged tissues, plays a critical role in the process of scientific discovery. Our PURM experience enabled us to play a role in the collaborative efforts of many researchers and doctors in their search for a greater understanding of the human body.