How strong is the bond between the olfactory receptors and an organic material, like a perfume?

Is there a chemical that is safe for inhalation that would weaken this bond and prepare the olfactory receptors to receive new scents?

I know that materials like charcoal and zeolite absorb these molecules, but they are carcinogenic when inhaled, so I am searching for an alternative. Any and all advice is greatly appreciated!



The so-called "bond" you are talking about is relatively weak. Binding between most odiferous compounds (most of them are organic compounds, but there are some inorganic ones like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide) and olfactory receptors (think proteins with a groove that fits the shape of the odor chemical) is rapid and reversible. There are no covalent bonds formed- just weak intermolecular forces like London forces and maybe hydrogen bonding. You need that rapid reversibility in order to tell which way a smell is coming from or to track something by smell.

For sure, high doses of odiferous compounds can temporarily overload your olfactory receptors - the result being that your sense of smell is degraded or qualitatively changed for minutes or perhaps hours. I do not know for sure but I suspect that some chemical substances (probably only if they are designed to do so) can irreversibly bind to receptors (similar to so-called "suicide" substrates that inactivate an enzyme) and permanently inactivate them, in which case the olfactory cells would have to produce more receptors (hours to days?) in order to restore your sense of smell.

The question I think you need to consider is: is there a chemical substance that would purge the olfactory receptors of old odor compounds and render them freshly able to detect new odors? I think the answer may be no. Even if you could place a zeolite or activated carbon particle next to an olfactory receptor, the odor chemical that is bound to it would still have to diffuse out (on its own) in order to bind with the particle.

But lets see if others out there have any ideas about this. And give my regards to your grandmother!

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  • $\begingroup$ Thinking some more about this question, I also want to offer that there may be a way to chemically stimulate the expression of the olfactory receptor genes, so that the olfactory cells in your nose produce more (fresh) receptors. This in turn might possibly (but would not necessarily) increase your sensitivity to certain odors. $\endgroup$ – iad22agp Sep 11 '15 at 18:09

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