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Olfactory System Anatomy

Overview

The olfactory system represents one of the oldest sensory modalities in the phylogenetic history of mammals. (See the image below.) As a chemical sensor, the olfactory system detects food and influences social and sexual behavior. The specialized olfactory epithelial cells characterize the only group of neurons capable of regeneration. Activation occurs when odiferous molecules come in contact with specialized processes known as the olfactory vesicles.

Head anatomy with olfactory nerve.

Head anatomy with olfactory nerve.

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Within the nasal cavity, the turbinates or nasal conchae serve to direct the inspired air toward the olfactory epithelium in the upper posterior region. This area (only a few centimeters wide) contains more than 100 million olfactory receptor cells. These specialized epithelial cells give rise to the olfactory vesicles containing kinocilia, which serve as sites of stimulus transduction. Olfaction is less developed in humans than in other mammals, such as rodents.

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