Friday, April 19, 2013

Current Conditions

75° F. Steady sea breeze. Sunny. Clear. Pale moon. Santa Catalina Island atop a distant fog bank. Palos Verdes in the haze up the coast.

I walk across the beach through three odor plumes: grilling hot dogs, pot, salty sea mist.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Talking Odor Perception on Huff Post Live

I’ve been on the road and am just now getting around to posting a link to this smelly panel discussion hosted on Tuesday by Josh Zepps. It’s me, Stuart Firestein, Bonnie Blodgett, and Sissel Tolaas.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


I’m in Huntington Beach, California, for the 35th annual AChemS conference of smell and taste scientists. Missed the last two meetings so glad to be back in my home state reconnecting with colleagues. Hope to blog and tweet the best parts for you to share. This was the view Wednesday afternoon from the Hyatt Regency across the pool, the PCH, and the beach, with the Pacific on the horizon.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Society for Neuroscience President: “Shut Up,” He Explained

With over 42,000 members the Society for Neuroscience is the largest scientific association in the field. Its president, Larry Swanson, sent an email to members today discussing President Obama’s brain research initiative. It is a remarkable document. I reprint it in full below (emphases mine).

Swanson makes two points: SfN members should support the plan because money, and they should keep any misgivings about it to themselves because money.

This disgraceful note is what passes for science advocacy today.
Dear fellow Society for Neuroscience members,

Following a week of extraordinary attention to the field of neuroscience and support for biomedical research, I write to share the SfN Executive Committee’s view about President Obama’s announcement of a U.S. brain research initiative and why we believe it is important for the neuroscience community to both embrace and help shape it through scientific dialogue. I had the privilege of attending the President’s announcement at the White House, and, after listening to his words, I am excited and confident that this and other emerging global funding initiatives can be tremendously positive for our field.

The announcement comes at a critical time in neuroscience. Unparalleled scientific progress and possibility co-exist alongside growing challenges caused by shrinking or flat national government budgets for science research. Precisely because of these realities, the Executive Committee believes the President’s announcement represents a critical moment to both pursue scientific opportunities and make the case that now is the time to increase science investment. Last Tuesday’s White House announcement prioritized an initial investment in pilot tools and technologies. We think this is a reasonable place to start as it acknowledges the long horizons and deep challenges inherent in studying the brain, as well as the advantages of developing revolutionary new methods for discovery. The project also has established a rigorous process for determining investments and future planning, with an exemplary NIH Advisory Committee comprised of distinguished scientists from across our field with a strong emphasis on basic science.

While we should all continue to explore and discuss questions about the scientific direction, it is important that our community be perceived as positive about the incredible opportunity represented in the President’s announcement. If we are perceived as unreasonably negative or critical about initial details, we risk smothering the initiative before it gets started.

At the same time, SfN knows that scientists will be challenged to make progress on even these initial projects — let alone pursue the field’s ongoing vital work — without sustained and growing financial investment in the scientific enterprise. The President articulated the outlines of a possible long-term vision for focusing on brain research, with an emphasis on basic science, and NIH Director Francis Collins has consistently emphasized that the initiative likely requires a project spanning a decade or more and strong NIH-wide funding. His comparisons of the project to the Human Genome Project, while not a perfect scientific analogy, suggests to the public a long-term commitment. To help realize these possibilities, SfN will continue advocating strongly for sustained investments to support neuroscience and the biomedical research enterprise overall, and we will need all of your voices in those efforts for years to come.

SfN encourages healthy debate and rigorous dialogue about the effort’s scientific directions. Testing of assumptions, methodological debate, and constructive competition are central to scientific progress. I urge you to bring all this to the table through our scientific communications channels and venues, including the SfN annual meeting in San Diego this fall and The Journal of Neuroscience.

Thanks to your extraordinary scientific achievements, the neuroscience field is capturing the world’s attention, and, here in the United States, rallying a nation to support more focus on scientific discovery. Thank you for your commitment to advancing science and improving health. I look forward to participating with all of you in this ongoing discussion as the initiative takes shape.

Larry Swanson
SfN President
This message shows that Swanson is clearly in damage control mode. Obama's BRAIN proposal has been criticized by many scientists and Swanson wants to suppress open dissent so as not to jeopardize SfN's rent seeking activities.

Exit question: Can you find the part where Swanson describes the actual neuroscience that $100 million in tax money will buy?

Bonus question: What is the scientific term for “trust us”? (Answer: “an exemplary NIH Advisory Committee comprised of distinguished scientists.”)

Bonus question 2: What is the scientific term for “don’t air your disagreement in public”? (Answer: “bring all this to the table through our scientific communications channels and venues.”)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Green on Green: People vs Pelicans

Here at FirstNerve we enjoy watching the contradictions emerge when one form of political correctitude collides with another: wind turbines vs eagles, save-the-whales vs preserving Native American culture, municipal composting vs clean air, etc.

The contradictions in La Jolla, California, are ripe and getting riper as the thick layer of pelican poop and cormorant crap on the town’s seaside rocks grows deeper and smellier by the day. A new AP story updates what we wrote about last year—the protected status of the scenic cove makes guano abatement nearly impossible, yet the unbearable stench is bad for business, tourism, and quality of life in general.

A waiter at a beachside cafe is quoted as saying resignedly, “Poop is a part of nature.” True that. But as the San Diego Union-Tribune pointed out, it is California’s excessive regulatory culture that “effectively sanctifies animal waste.”

California’s love affair with regulatory environmentalism could cause cognitive dissonance headaches. More regulation of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) because the stench of manure from thousands of closely packed animals is an environmental issue? Yes! Take steps to reduce the stench of guano from thousands of closely packed birds because it’s an environmental issue? Yes! Er, no! Uh . . . let me get back to you on that. 

Pass the popcorn.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Obama’s Incoherent BRAIN

We have a good understanding of the sense of smell at the biological periphery. We know how odor receptors work and how the sensory information they convey is organized in the nose and olfactory bulb. Beyond that, however, things get murky. We know the higher brain areas of olfaction only in broad brush strokes. We have barely an inkling how odor intensity and pleasantness are modulated by brain areas dealing with memory and emotion. Wouldn’t it be great to have it all mapped out, from the physical molecule of trimethylamine to the behavioral yuck response?

That is the allure of President Obama’s $100 million brain research initiative. But it isn’t easy to get a handle on what exactly the project consists of.

Susan Young’s piece yesterday on the MIT Technology Review website is subtitled “Obama calls for $100 million to develop new technologies to understand the brain.” She makes it sound like a technology development initiative.

But today’s WSJ op-ed by Paul Allen and Francis Collins calls it “a federally coordinated effort to unlock the secrets of the brain,” to “gain powerful insights into neurological diseases and mental-health disorders.” That sounds like basic research, not technology development. So which is it?

Allen and Collins note that neuroscientists have a host of research techniques at their disposal. They observe that we can study small, isolated neural circuits but we don’t yet understand how the brain works as a whole. To understand “this piece of highly excitable matter” we need a massively scaled up effort, broadened to include “a range of disciplines, from physics and biology to nanoscience, computer science and engineering.” Or, as Allen and Collins say, “All hands must be on deck.”

But here’s what Young sees: “The BRAIN initiative proposes to develop new technologies that can record the activity from thousands, if not millions or billions, of neurons simultaneously at timescales matching behavior and mental activities.” Among the new technologies she lists are nanochips, nano particles, nanoprobes with wireless data transfer, novel optical techniques, voltage-sensitive fluorescent molecules, synthetic biology, improved calcium-imaging methods and enzymes that build ion concentration-sensitive errors into DNA.

So would new techniques get us closer to the Big Picture in odor perception? Perhaps. But it’s not as if we’re hurting for technology. Among the techniques used to study smell are calcium imaging, single cell recording, patch clamp recording, cell ensemble recording, fluorescent imaging of gene expression, optical tracing of trans-synaptic connections, autoradiography, fMRI, EEG, recording of chemosensory evoked potentials, magnetoencephalography, transgenic expression of receptors (a.k.a. “synthetic biology”), genomics, and computer modeling of receptor activation. There is no one path to understanding the Secret of Odor Perception—it is being attacked with a diverse arsenal of technology by a lot of really smart people focused obsessively on smell.

The BRAIN project, in contrast, sounds like a plan invented by the Underpants Gnomes: (1) create technology, (2) ?, (3) unlock the secrets of the brain. Like the Underpants Gnomes, BRAIN fans are adamant about wanting one thing: more. More technology, more researchers, more money. More underpants.

To be fair, Allen and Collins say “progress will also hinge on the cooperation of the public and private sectors, a welcome aspect of the president’s “BRAIN” initiative. We’ll need creative, nimble management to ensure the best work out of both sides.” It’s a bit ironic to hear Francis Collins call for nimble management. He led the federal government’s enormous Human Genome Project which, you’ll remember, was nearly beaten to its goal by Celera Genomics, J. Craig Venter’s private company which started later but moved faster.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Weekend Update: Perfumania/Parlux Hires Legit Exec, Jay-Z Gets Richer

Donald J. Loftus

According to a press release on Friday, Donald J. Loftus has been hired as president of Parlux Ltd. and executive vice president of Perfumania Inc. Parlux, of course, produces high-profile celebrity scents by Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson, Rihanna and a slew of others.
Loftus brings a wealth of experience to the company and is one of the most respected executives in the beauty industry. Most recently, Loftus was the North American President and CEO of P&G Prestige, a position he held for over ten years. Prior to P&G Prestige, he held positions at Cosmopolitan Cosmetics, Escada Beaute, YSL Beauté and also served as Divisional VP at May Department stores. Loftus is a former Chairman of the Board for The Fragrance Foundation and the current Chairman of Fashion Group International.
Let’s hope the hiring of a credible outsider like Loftus will put an end to such embarrassments as last November’s imbecilic Parlux press release for the new Rihanna fragrance.

Speaking of outsiders and insiders, this is a great time to revisit that tangled knot of cross-holdings, family trusts, and related-party sales that constitute the saga of Perfumania and Parlux Fragrances. The last time we checked in, the former was looking to acquire the latter. That deal closed on April 18, 2012, and Parlux (the perfume manufacturer) is now part of Perfumania Inc. (the perfume retailer).

The upshot, as disclosed in a proxy statement for its January 10, 2013 annual shareholders meeting, is that Glenn Nussdorf, Stephen Nussdorf and their sister, Arlene Nussdorf collectively are the beneficial owners of approximately 55% of Perfumania Holdings Inc. The astonishingly unGoogle-able Rene Garcia and certain family trusts and affiliated companies of Rene Garcia own another 24%. In addition, rap mogul Jay-Z, a.k.a. Shawn C. Carter and S. Carter Enterprises, LLC, (a company he controls), own another 11%.

In other words, 90% of the company’s shares are controlled by five people. [Still feel like buying in?—Ed.] [No thanks.]

Perfumania’s various SEC disclosures are a wonder to behold. Here’s one gem:
Glenn, Stephen and Arlene Nussdorf own GSN Trucking, Inc. which provides general transportation and freight services. The Company periodically utilizes GSN to transport both inbound purchases of merchandise and outbound shipments to wholesale customers.
Here’s another: six estate trusts established by the three Nussdorf siblings hold promissory notes from the company worth $85.4 million, while brothers Glenn and Stephen hold another note worth $5 million (it is currently in default, which triggers a higher interest rate). These loans can only be repayed after the company pays off a $225 million line of revolving credit. [Sure you don’t want to invest?—Ed.] [Yes, really sure.]

Capitalist Jay-Z Visiting Communist Hell-hole

Finally, let’s review how Jay-Z got his 11% stake in Perfumania. Two years ago he, along with the cryptic Rene Garcia, created Artistic Brands Development LLC. ABD obtained rights to license fragrances from Rihanna, Kanye West, and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter himself. ABD then sublicensed the rights to Parlux, in return for warrants to 8 million shares of Parlux. Easy peasy.

A year later, with its acquisition of Parlux on the horizon, Perfumania agreed to give ABD 300,000 Perfumania shares “as consideration for certain licensing transactions contemplated” as part of the merger. Those shares went to ABD’s designee Shawn Cater when the deal closed on April 18, 2012. Easier peasy.

On that same day another deal kicked in: Perfumania issued warrants for 1,599,999 shares to ABD at an $8 strike price. It turns out that ABD owed unpaid guaranteed minimum royalties to its licensees (among them presumably Shawn Carter). As part of this new deal, Perfumania obtained the sublicense rights (that used to belong to Parlux), in return for assuming ABD’s outstanding royalty obligations. (Cash for Jay-Z. Sweet!) Plus ABD and the opaque Garcia Group received warrants for 3,199,972 shares of Perfumania. (More shares for Jay-Z. Sweeter!)

At Friday’s closing price of $5.35 a share, Jay-Z’s 1,919,784 shares of Perfumania are worth $10,270,844.

I couldn’t name a single tune of his, but I admire his talent.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Human Pheromones: Abandoned by the Wayside

The great intellectual wagon train of behavioral science rolls on, leaving behind heaps of junk that the scientific pioneers no longer find useful. Miles back there’s a big pile of specialized “instincts” for this and “drives” for that. Further up, the trail is strewn with Skinner boxes and the shabby wreckage of behaviorism. In the near distance are items more recently jettisoned: the excess baggage of mammalian pheromones.

Georgia State researcher Aras Petrulis is the latest to toss the pheromone concept to the side of the road. In a review article to appear soon in the journal Hormones and Behavior, he examines “chemosignals, hormones and mammalian reproduction.” His conclusions echo those of Richard Doty.

Petrulis doesn’t deny the importance of smell. In his view, “it is clear that social odors play a substantial and oftentimes obligatory role in mammalian reproduction.” However, he believes that the actions of these social odors rarely meet the definition of a pheromone. Why?
The role of learning and memory in the behavioral and physiological responses to opposite-sex conspecifics is generally under-appreciated by the non-specialist. [Don’t be offended, FN readers! Dr. Petrulis’s condescension is directed toward other PhDs—those outside his narrow discipline.] Many of the reproductive effects reviewed above are clearly subject to learning in adulthood as evidenced by their dependency on sexual experience or prior contact with chemosignals as well as by their ability to be conditioned to previously neutral odors.

This dependence on learning and context undercuts the most fundamental idea of a pheromone; that is, that responses to it are “instinctual” and therefore not learned. Similarly, the fact that most chemosignals altering mammalian behavior and/or physiology are complex mixtures often lacking species-specificity, rather than being potent and essential singular compounds, further erodes the utility of the term “pheromone”. Because of these concerns, it is perhaps wise to restrict the term to molecules that have met each and every criterion of a pheromone, as used in the classical ethological sense.
[Emphasis mine.]
And if we restrict the term as he so gingerly suggests, where does that leave us with respect to human pheromones?
Lastly, it should be clear that chemosignals are neither necessary nor sufficient for human reproduction nor do they have a privileged place in directing human social behavior. Positive findings of human chemical communication, when not based on flawed analysis . . . are often inconsistent, and at best, demonstrate modest effects on human behavior and physiology.
So take it from a guy who studies sex behavior for living: drop the human pheromones and lighten your load.

The study discussed here is “Chemosignals, hormones and mammalian reproduction,” by Aras Petrulis, published online in Hormones and Behavior, March 29, 2013.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Fragrance Felony: Why Steal a Discontinued Perfume?

From the HuffPo: “Juan Bernal Stole $117,000 Worth of Perfume in New Jersey, Including Victoria’s Secret Line: Cops.”

Why is this filed under Weird News? Because it conjures up an image of some guy tiptoeing out of a store with hundreds of bottles of perfume? Not exactly.
Cops say Bernal stole 1,890 4.2-ounce bottles of 5th Avenue by Elizabeth Arden Friday, valued at $109,620. He also reportedly took 234 3.4-ounce bottles of Victoria’s Secret PINK, valued at $7,488.
That’s close to 1,000 pounds worth of goods. Not something you can slip into your pants.
Juan Bernal, 52, allegedly employed a 17-year-old boy to help him pull off the haute heist. The two are accused of loading thousands of bottles swiped from Cosmetics Essence Innovations in Holmdel into an SUV . . .
So the goods were stolen from a manufacturer’s facility and the kid was the muscle. Wholesale perfume theft is big economic issue, although by New Jersey standards this heist was small potatoes. (Cops are valuing the Eliz. Arden at full list price of $58.)

I do think there is a “weird” element to this story. According to this report, the VS perfume was Live Pink, launched in 2010 and now discontinued. Here’s my question: Does this make it more or less valuable on the black market? In other words, is Juan Bernal a criminal mastermind or a doofus?

I’d love to hear what some fume heads think.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Coming Attractions: Sperm Wars—The Bourgeonal Strikes Back


Earlier this year I declared that the Bourgeonal Sperm Wars were over. Now it seems that announcement may have been a bit . . . premature.

The Prequel
Bourgeonal, which smells like lily of the valley, activates the OR1D2 olfactory receptor found in the human nose and on human sperm cells. Bourgeonal is also the only odorant to which men are more sensitive than are women, and sperm respond to it as well. This led some researchers to suggest that bourgeonal is a chemosignal that guides sperm to the egg.

However, Timo Strünker and colleagues demonstrated that the CatSper Ca2+ ion channel, the molecular mechanism which triggers the relevant behavioral changes in sperm, is activated not only by bourgeonal but by steroids, prostaglandins, menthol, and helional (everything but the kitchen sink). As a finishing touch, Strünker et al. found that the OR1D2 receptor itself is not necessary for bourgeonal to activate the CatSper channel. So much for the notion of sperm tracking the egg by lily of the valley scent.

The New Releases
Now come two papers linking olfactory perception of bourgeonal to human infertility. The first is by olfaction researcher Thomas Hummel and colleagues at the University of Dresden Medical School. They gave smell tests to men with idiopathic infertility, i.e., guys from couples trying unsuccessfully for two years to get pregnant in the absence of a medical cause. The infertile guys were compared to proven fathers of similar age.

The groups did not differ in overall smell ability, or in sensitivity (detection threshold) to bourgeonal and a couple of other floral scents: helional and phenylethyl alcohol. However, infertile guys perceived the odor of bourgeonal as significantly less intense at above-threshold concentrations. The perceived the other two scents the same as the fertile guys. According to Hummel et al., decreased olfactory sensitivity to bourgeonal may relate “to a decreased functionality of OR1D2, which in turn may be linked to idiopathic infertility.”

I know what you’re thinking: this is a slender thread on which to hang the bourgeonal story. But the same week, a paper by an Italian research group at the University of Padua came up with a finding that took the story even further.

Led by Giancarlo Ottaviano, the group compared a group of infertile men to a set of healthy controls. The infertile guys were significantly less sensitive to the odor of bourgeonal (detection threshold), and their sperm were significantly less likely to migrate in the direction of bourgeonal. Genetic analysis of the OR1D2 receptor showed that single nucleotide polymorphisms (tiny genetic mutations) were more common among the infertile men. The Padua team believes they have confirmed the importance of olfactory receptor-based bourgeonal detection in human male infertility.

The Review
Based on the Strünker papers I thought the sperm-guided-by-bourgeonal idea was probably an artifact. However, these new findings are not easy to dismiss. It looks like there will be more episodes of Sperm Wars in the future.

The studies discussed here are “Decreased perception of bourgeonal may be linked to male idiopathic infertility,” by Charlott Sinding, Eva Kemper, Petra Spornraft-Ragaller, and Thomas Hummel, published online in Chemical Senses, March 27, 2013, and “Human olfactory sensitivity for bourgeonal and male infertility: a preliminary investigation,” by Giancarlo Ottaviano, D. Zuccarello, M. Menegazzo, L. Perilli, G. Marioni, A.C. Frigo, A. Staffieri, and C. Foresta, published online in European Archives of Otorhinolaryngology, March, 2013.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Creating a Virtual Odor Source: Fluid Dynamics Meets the Fun House

Smell-O-Vision is the hardy perennial of sensory technology. Engineers and artists keep returning to the idea, tweaking it here and there: a virtual reality helmet, a small device for beneath movie theater seats, and so on. Smell-o-vision is an idea as intrinsically cool as it is goofy. It gets more than its share of giggles: for example, yesterday’s April Fools debut of the Google Nose beta. (OK, the “safe search” feature was mildly amusing . . .)

For some reason, most advances in smell-o-vision technology originate in Japan. At the recent IEEE Virtual Reality conference in Orlando, researchers Haruka Matsukura, Tatsuhiro Yoneda, and Hiroshi Ishida from Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology demonstrated a smell-capable video display. People have jury-rigged such devices before. The new wrinkle here is that the scent emerges from a specific area of the screen.

How do they do it? Via “computational fluid dynamics.” They aim multiple converging airstreams so as to create an outward flow from a specific location.
The proposed system has four fans on the four corners of the screen. The airflows that are generated by these fans collide multiple times to create an airflow that is directed towards the user from a certain position on the screen. By introducing odor vapor into the airflows, the odor distribution is as if an odor source had been placed onto the screen. The generated odor distribution leads the user to perceive the odor as emanating from a specific region of the screen.
That’s sorta cool, even if it doesn’t live up to the ridiculously overblown headline at Extremetech: “Japanese smell-o-vision TV releases scents with per-pixel accuracy.”

As a proof of principle, this technology opens up all sorts of interesting applications quite apart from video screens. I could see colliding airstreams being used to create pop-up smells in a walk-through environment. Imagine an olfactory fun house . . .

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Prince and the Plaintiff

Prince is probably a little less rich than he was a few days ago. After being sued in 2008 by the licensee of his unsuccessful fragrance 3121, the purple one stiffed his attorney, failed to show up in court, and was eventually slapped with a default judgment and $3.9 million in damages after a New York judge accepted the findings of a court-appointed referee.

That’s where “fraudulent inducement and tortious interference with contract” gets you.

Facing the loss of some serious coin, Prince appears to have pulled it together and appealed that judgment. Court papers filed last Wednesday indicate that he and the plaintiff, Revelations Perfume, have now settled out of court. Universal Music, also named in the suit, appears to be part of the settlement. Bloomberg’s Chris Dolmetsch reports that while attorneys confirm the case is settled, they are not willing to disclose the terms.