A Masked Aversive Odor Cannot Be Discriminated From the Masking Odor but Can Be Identified Through Odor Quality Ratings and Neural Activation Patterns
Odor masking is a very prominent problem in our daily routines, mainly concerning unpleasant sweat or toilet odors. In the current study we explored the effectiveness of odor masking both on a behavioral and neuronal level. By definition, participants cannot differentiate a fully masked unpleasant odor from the pleasant pure odor used as a masking agent on a behavioral level. We hypothesized, however, that one can still discriminate between a fully masked odor mixture and the pure masking odor on a neuronal level and that, using a reinforcing feedback paradigm, participants could be trained to perceive this difference. A pleasant, lemon-like odor (citral) and a mixture of citral and minor amounts of an unpleasant, goat-like odor (caproic acid) were presented to participants repeatedly using a computer-controlled olfactometer and participants had to decide whether two presented stimuli were the same or different. Accuracy of this task was incentivized with a possible monetary reward. Functional imaging was used throughout the task to investigate central processing of the two stimuli. The participants rated both stimuli as isopleasant and isointense, indicating that the unpleasant odor was fully masked by the pleasant odor. The isolated caproic acid component of the mixture was rated less pleasant than the pleasant odor in a prior experimental session. Although the masked and pure stimuli were not discriminated in the forced-choice task, quality ratings on a dimensional scale differed. Further, we observed an increased activation of the insula and ventral striatum/putamen for the pure in contrast to the fully masked odor, hence revealing a difference in neuronal processing. Our hypothesis that perceptual discrimination and neuronal processing can be enhanced using a reinforcing feedback paradigm is not supported by our data.
Loos, Helene M.