Our senses shape our lives in ways we are only beginning to understand. Monell’s cutting-edge research programs focus on taste and smell to provide a framework for advances across many areas of human health and well-being.
Monell’s research approach is highly collaborative and interdisciplinary; sensory psychologists work with biophysicists, chemists with behavioral neuroscientists, environmental scientists with geneticists. The Center has no formal departments or divisions; for the purposes of convenience, science at Monell can be categorized into six overlapping programmatic areas, with the specific research program of any given Monell scientist falling under multiple categories. Many approaches and tools, ranging from sensory assessment to genetics, are shared across programs, facilitating and strengthening Monell’s interdisciplinary approach.
Please click the links at left for more detailed descriptions of the following program areas. To learn which scientists are working in a specific program, click here.
• Sensation and Perception explores how humans recognize, perceive and respond to tastes, odors and chemical irritants. Many studies focus on individual differences, examining how genetics, age, gender, experience, and the environment influence our sensory capabilities. Scientists also explore how interactions within and among the senses influence how we perceive taste, smell and flavor.
• Neuroscience and Molecular Biology addresses questions of how taste and smell receptor cells recognize and respond to chemical stimuli, and how this information is transmitted to and processed in the brain. Monell is a pioneer in the use of living human taste and olfactory receptor cells to show how disease states affect taste and smell. Scientists are pinpointing which genes are responsible for individual differences in how we perceive tastes and smells. Related studies explore how genetically-determined differences in taste and smell relate to nutritional status, alcoholism and obesity.
• Environmental and Occupational Health focuses on both positive and negative health effects of exposure to airborne chemicals in home, work, and outdoor environments. Studies examine the impact of volatile chemicals on chemosensory function and bodily processes, and address the role of cognitive expectations in the response to airborne chemicals. Experimental, epidemiological, and modeling approaches enhance understanding of the chemical senses in occupational and environmental settings.
• Appetite and Nutrition studies determinants of food and flavor preferences across the human lifespan and how these change as a function of disease and treatment status. Researchers also explore basic biochemical, neural and physiological mechanisms controlling appetite and food intake to determine their role in overeating and the development of obesity. Other studies probe food cravings and appetites for minerals such as salt and calcium.
• Health and Well-Being targets diseases of taste and smell. Monell’s research scientists interact with clinicians to understand the causes and shed light on to potential cures for these diseases, which can reduce quality of life, induce nutritional imbalance, and render us more vulnerable to food poisoning, environmental toxins, and fire hazards. The production and communicative functions of human body and mouth odors are another focus of investigation.
• Chemical Ecology and Communication investigates the roles of chemical signals, including pheromones and individual ‘odortypes’, in human reproductive behavior and social communication. In conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Monell scientists also study the mechanisms that underlie chemosensory-mediated attraction or repellency in birds, reptiles, and fish. This knowledge is helping to identify ways to protect threatened species, minimize crop damage, control non-indigenous species, and find non-lethal solutions to conflicts between humans and wildlife.