The John B. Pierce Laboratory

Can robots be taught to smell?

By Ed Stannard, New Haven Register

Posted: 10/29/15, 1:19 PM EDT

NEW HAVEN >> Understanding the sense of smell could help in building robots to do things we rely on animals to do today, such as locating people under the rubble of an earthquake, locating illegal drugs or finding a bomb.

That’s the quest of a study at the John B. Pierce Laboratory and Yale School of Medicine, one of three underwritten by the National Science Foundation, part of President Barack Obama’s BRAIN Initiative (BRAIN stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies).

“There have been some studies on this problem of understanding olfaction,” said Justus Verhagen, associate fellow at the Pierce Lab and professor in neurobiology in the School of Medicine. However, “a single lab can only look at so much.”

In fact, we know “close to nothing” about the sense of smell in mammals, he said.

The team at the Pierce lab, which is affiliated with the School of Medicine, has “a mathematician, three neuroscientists. We have an evolutionary behaviorist. We have a physicist on board who actually images odor plumes,” Verhagen said.

The study will use animals such as snails, flies, mice and dogs to see how they react to an “odor plume,” which is “the concept of what an odor source looks like in space and in time,” Verhagen said.
As an odor emanates from a flower, for example, it enlarges in space and gets more diffuse, but not in a regular pattern. “It’s a little like crumpled-up paper [with] a lot of voids” where there is no odor at all.

While rats and dogs are used to find survivors underneath a collapsed building or to locate drugs in a school locker, they’re “highly unreliable,” according to Verhagen. Another application is tracing chemical pollutants in a body of water, he said.

The animals in the study will range from snails to dogs and their movements will be measured as they follow virtual odor plumes, which are created in the lab to simulate actual odors. “For example, a mouse will run on a trackball suspended on air to trace its movements and measure its brain activity as it tries to find the source of a virtual odor plume,” Verhagen said.

Also, the mice’s brains will be stimulated by light to detect how the olfactory centers in the brain respond to odors.

The projects arose from an intense workshop held in June at the Janelia Research Campus in Virginia, a farm that is part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. A total of 140 scientists competed for the projects funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“If you understand the problem in biology you can really apply this for the good of humankind,” Verhagen said.