McKelvey School of Engineering

An emerging understanding of smell

Something interesting emerged when researchers at Washington University in St. Louis developed a computational model of a bug’s olfactory system. (Photo: Barani Raman)

How does the brain detect smells?

To find out, you could rely on biological sciences, using high tech imaging methods, or studying anatomical diagrams. You could even get philosophical and ask, “What is smell, anyway?”

Or, you could turn to engineering.


That’s what ShiNung Ching, an associate professor in the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, did.

Ultimately, Ching, who is in the Preston M. Green Department of Electrical & Systems Engineering, and doctoral student Sruti Mallik developed computational models of neural circuits that mimic the sensory act of smelling. They found the models also manifest certain properties analogous to those observed in olfactory sensory processing in insect brains.

The research was carried out in collaboration with Baranidharan Raman, professor of biomedical engineering. It was published earlier this spring in The Journal of Neuroscience.

In order to build a model that mimicked the process of smelling, the research team first had to mathematically describe the process of sensory detection. Then they built computational models of neural circuits that would best satisfy those mathematical constraints.

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