New Research on Why Women Are Better Smellers

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Woman Smelling Flower
Photo: Roy Mehta/Getty Images

Women are, generally speaking, better than men at smelling stuff, but researchers haven’t quite been able to figure out why. New research published in PLOS ONE suggests it may have something to do with the fact that women have greater numbers of specialized cells associated with olfactory abilities.

To the press release:

The group examined post-mortem brains from seven men and 11 women who were all over the age of 55 at the time of death. All individuals were neurologically healthy and none worked in professions requiring exceptional olfactory abilities, such as coffee-tasting or professional cooking. By calculating the number of cells in the olfactory bulbs of these individuals, the group (that also included researchers from the University of São Paulo, the University of California, San Francisco, and the Albert Einstein Hospital in São Paulo) discovered that women have on average 43% more cells than men in this brain structure. Counting neurons specifically, the difference reached almost 50% more in women than men.

The question remains whether this higher cell number accounts for the differences in olfactory sensitivity between sexes. “Generally speaking, says Prof. Lent, larger brains with larger numbers of neurons correlate with the functional complexity provided by these brains. Thus, it makes sense to think that more neurons in the female olfactory bulbs would provide women with higher olfactory sensitivity.”

The fact that few cells are added to our brains throughout life suggests that women are already born with these extra cells. But why do women’s brains have this pre-wired ability? What mechanisms are responsible for this higher number of cells in their olfactory bulbs? Some believe this olfactory ability is essential for reproductive behaviors such as pair bonding and kin recognition.

In semi-related news, it’s probably time for me to clean my apartment this weekend.