Independence of Odor Quality and Absolute Sensitivity in a Study of Aging
Young, middle-aged, and senior subjects performed tasks designed to examine whether odor quality discrimination varies independently of sensitivity. One task entailed detection of 2-heptanone and the others AB-X discrimination of quality for sets of 2-heptanone and homologues or 2-heptanone and non-ketones. Subjects sought to discriminate either at intensity-matched concentrations far above threshold, but fixed across subjects, or at levels adjusted to neutralize differences in sensitivity. The young and middle-aged groups manifested the same absolute sensitivity, but the senior group poorer sensitivity. Performance in quality discrimination, however, declined progressively. Performance lacked an association with absolute sensitivity, no matter how examined. These data, in conjunction with converging findings from patients with neurological damage, studies of brain imaging, and the relation between concentration and quality discrimination in younger persons, suggest largely independent processing of odor quality and intensity.