New ASU research on sense of smell could help pinpoint causes of brain diseases

September 22, 2015

Like most animals, we rely on our sense of smell for survival. It’s critical to our health and an important factor in our quality of life.

A reduction in our ability to smell is believed to be a precursor to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, to name a few. Yet olfaction is poorly understood compared with our other senses. Gaining a better understanding will have a broad impact in biomedicine, agriculture and engineering applications. rendering of brain inside a girl The National Science Foundation has awarded Arizona State University — and three partner institutions — a three-year, $3.6 million grant to study how healthy brains create memories of odors, as well as how they fail when affected by disease. Photo by: Arizona State University Download Full Image

In a new effort to promote transformative research on critical questions about our sense of smell, the National Science Foundation hosted an Ideas Lab called “Cracking the Olfactory Code.” As part of this effort to generate interdisciplinary, innovative collaborations for discovery in the field of olfaction, the National Science Foundation has awarded Arizona State University — and three partner institutions — a three-year, $3.6 million grant to study how healthy brains create memories of odors, as well as how they fail when affected by disease.

ASU professor Brian Smith’s research team will receive $900,000 as part of the study with colleagues from Harvard University, Salk Institute for Biological Studies and California Institute of Technology. This grant is one of three provided nationally.

“The opportunity through the NSF Ideas Lab has allowed us to develop novel, innovative and highly interdisciplinary approaches to advance an understanding of how the brain represents odors,” said Smith, professor and neuroscientist with the ASU School of Life Sciences. “Reaching this understanding will have a broad impact in biomedicine and agriculture, as well as engineering applications.”

The scientists will use honeybees and fruit flies as models to better understand the physical space of odors — how natural odors occur and how an organism must detect them against complex backgrounds. This study would allow researchers an important opportunity to link the physical structure of an odor environment to better understand how the brain works.

Previous studies used synthetic odors to research olfaction, but this team will use natural odors collected from the insects’ environments. This could reveal new information about the neurological circuits behind our sense of smell.

“This exciting, cutting-edge research could provide us with an understanding of neural representations of odor which have never been described before,” Smith said. “This, in turn, could help us understand how brains malfunction when faced with disease.”

The study may also positively impact an effort to engineer devices that could sniff out things such as drugs, bombs or even cancer. 

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


ASU, Oxford conference addresses global migration

September 22, 2015

These days, whether you’re watching TV, scanning the latest headlines on Reddit or eavesdropping in line at Starbucks, the topic of global migration is unavoidable.

Across the globe, millions are fleeing violence, oppression and poverty in countries like Afghanistan, Somalia and — perhaps most notably these days — Syria, in what Carlos Velez-Ibanez calls an “unprecedented” migratory phenomenon. The University of Oxford will host the migration conference with ASU. ASU School of Transborder Studies faculty presenting research at the conference are (from left) assistant professor Saskias Casanova, Regents' Professor Carlos Velez-Ibanez, assistant professor Airin Martinez, associate professor Maria Cruz-Torres and (not pictured) associate professor Francisco Lara-Valencia. Photo by: Robin Kiyutelluk/ASU Download Full Image

“The entire world is moving, and it’s moving because of a combination of variables,” said the Arizona State University Regents’ Professor.

Those variables were the subject of a discussion between Velez-Ibanez and prominent anthropologist Shirley Ardener during a visit to the University of Oxford in England last year. From that discussion came the idea to host a conference to address the international concern.

“Transnational and Transborder Familial and Gender Relations: Comparing the Influence of Blurred and Brittle Borders” is the first collaboration of its kind between ASU and Oxford. The conference runs Sept. 23-25 at Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall.

ASU’s School of Transborder Studies and Oxford’s International Gender Studies Center at Lady Margaret Hall make natural partners, as both are interdisciplinary institutions focused on researching and bringing awareness to the impact of policy on society at every level.

As Velez-Ibanez explains, by coming together for the “Transnational and Transborder” conference, participants from ASU and Oxford hope to accomplish a number of objectives including: coming to an understanding of the complexities of current global migration issues and the policies that need to be instituted to deal with them; the initiation of what could perhaps develop into a long-term relationship between the University of Oxford and ASU; and the possibility of some major publications of scholarly research on the subject.

“From my particular point of view, [this conference] is a biggie,” said Velez-Ibanez. “We’ve had never had a conference at this scale of diversity for reasons of human movement.”

Conference participants will explore how migration affects family reproduction, familial life cycles, social protection, inclusion and exclusion from welfare systems, the feminization of migration flows, the creation of engendered spaces and places, and the manner in which subsequent generations seek to develop their human potential.

At the conference, Velez-Ibanez will present his research, along with four other School of Transborder Studies faculty: Maria Cruz-Torres, who will present on “Women, Work and Migration in Northwestern Mexico”; Saskias Casanova, who will present on “The Other Mexicans: Perceived Discrimination, Gender and Ethnic Identity for Yucatec-Maya Adolescents in the U.S. and Mexico”; Francisco Lara-Valencia, who will present on “Juntos Pero No Revueltos: The Neighborhood Gap for Mexican Origin Immigrants in Greater Phoenix, Arizona”; and Airin Martinez, who will present on “The Recalcitrance of Borders in the Examination of Unauthorized Latina Immigrants’ Embodiment.”

Velez-Ibanez’s research paper — “Another Way of Looking at Things from the Prevailing Prisms, Continuity and Contiguity of the Southwest North American Region” — will explore how policies that are implemented without regard for the historical reality of the places they are to be enforced can, and often do, result in unintended consequences that create stress and tension for those living there.

In particular, his research will focus on Mexican-origin families and their respective communities, but the overall lesson and message of his research is applicable the world over.

Emma Greguska

Reporter, ASU Now

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