News / Health

Study: Your Lungs Can Smell

A new study says your lungs can sense odors, but that they do so much differently from your nose. (Via Flickr)
A new study says your lungs can sense odors, but that they do so much differently from your nose. (Via <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/liverpoolhls/">Flickr</a>)

Related Articles

US Panel: Some Current, Former Smokers Should Get Annual Lung Scans

Under the Affordable Care Act, insurers will be required to cover the screenings

Study: Tobacco Tax Hike Could Save 200 Million Lives

Tripling tobacco taxes would decrease worldwide consumption by about a third, the study said

Study: Chinese Plant Ingredient Eases Chronic Pain

Compound comes from roots of flowering Corydalis herb which Chinese have used for centuries for its analgesic qualities
VOA News
Your lungs can smell. That’s what new research suggests.

But unlike the odor receptors in your nose, which send a message to the brain, the receptors in your lung cause the airways to constrict when a pungent or caustic odor such as cigarette smoke is sensed.

The new class of cells, called pulmonary neuroendocrine cells, or PNECs, were discovered by scientists at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Iowa.

“Our body plan is a tube within a tube, so our lungs and our gut are open to the external environment,” said Yehuda Ben-Shahar, an assistant professor of biology and of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis.  “Although they’re inside us, they’re actually part of our external layer. So they constantly suffer environmental insults,” he said, “and it makes sense that we evolved mechanisms to protect ourselves.”

The researchers say the cells might be responsible for the chemical hypersensitivity that characterizes respiratory diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. Patients with these diseases are told to avoid traffic fumes, pungent odors, perfumes and similar irritants, which can trigger airway constriction and breathing difficulties.

The odor receptors on the cells might be a therapeutic target, Ben-Shahar suggests. By blocking them, it might be possible to prevent some attacks, allowing people to cut down on the use of steroids or bronchodilators.

When a mammal inhales, volatile chemicals flow over two patches of specialized tissue high up in the nasal passages. These patches are rich in nerve cells with specialized odorant-binding molecules embedded in their membranes.

If a chemical docks on one of these receptors, the neuron fires, sending impulses along the olfactory nerve to the olfactory bulb in the brain, where the signal is integrated with those from hundreds of other similar cells to conjure the scent of old leather or dried lavender.

Aware that airway diseases are characterized by hypersensitivity to volatile stimuli, Ben-Shahar and his colleagues realized that the lungs, like the nose, must have some means of detecting inhaled chemicals.

In 2009, Ben-Shahar found that ciliated cells, cells with tiny hairlike protuberances that are responsible for moving things in the airway, responding to bitterness.

But since people are sensitive to many inhaled substances, not just bitter ones, he wanted to revisit the issue. This time, he found that these tissues also express odor receptors, not on ciliated cells but instead on neuroendocrine cells, flask-shaped cells that dump serotonin and various neuropeptides when they are stimulated.

“When people with airway disease have pathological responses to odors, they’re usually pretty fast and violent,” said Ben-Shahar. “Patients suddenly shut down and can’t breathe, and these cells may explain why.”

Ben-Shahar stresses the differences between chemosensation in the nose and in the lung. The cells in the nose are neurons, he points out, each with a narrowly tuned receptor, and their signals must be woven together in the brain to interpret our odor environment.

Cells in the airways are secretory, not neuronal, cells, and they may carry more than one receptor, so they are broadly tuned. Instead of sending nerve impulses to the brain, they flood local nerves and muscles with serotonin and neuropeptides. “They are possibly designed,” he said, “to elicit a rapid, physiological response if you inhale something that is bad for you.”

The different mechanisms explain why cognition plays a much stronger role in taste and smell than in coughing in response to an irritant. It is possible, for example, to develop a taste for beer. But nobody learns not to cough; the response is rapid and largely automatic.

Scientists suspect these pulmonary neuroscretory cells contribute to the hypersensitivity of patients with COPD to airborne irritants. COPD is a group of diseases, including emphysema, that is characterized by coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness.

When the scientists looked at the airway tissues from patients with COPD, they discovered that they had more of these neurosecretory cells than airway tissues from healthy donors.

Ben-Shahar is hopeful that the PNEC pathways will provide targets for drugs that would better control asthma, COPD and other respiratory diseases. They would be welcome. There has been a steep rise in these diseases in the past few decades, treatment options have been limited, and there are no cures.

The research appears in the March issue of the American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs