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The subtleties of smell

Perhaps the first issue of Pesquisa FAPESP in 2009 should have been impregnated with the delicious scent of jasmine or with the delicate and unforgettable scent of manacá flowers. Or perhaps it would have been more appropriate to fill the pages of the year’s first issue with the scent of roses – the kind whose subtle scent still lingers on, in the wake of so many transformations to remote and delicate original roses, wild roses, transformed through genetic improvements and other transgenic techniques to provide them with higher resistance, fewer thorns and breathtaking beauty. It is a fact that printing technologies allow magazine pages to be imbued with any smell we want. Or almost. However, the printing of this magazine would be much more expensive and no consensus would probably ever be reached in regard to the chosen scent that would translate the true spirit of Pesquisa FAPESP. Therefore, it is better for each individual reader to let his or her imagination run loose and choose the scents that will come to their minds while they read the cover story of this issue. The cover story focuses on the valuable and inspiring work, namely the deciphering of a kind of code of smells, if we could call it this.

In short, the referred research study has resulted in a new understanding of the interaction between odor molecules and the neurons in the nose, which send information to the brain, which then interprets and distinguishes, more or less accurately, one among thousands of smells that are part of the repertoire of human being’s sense of smell. Some people say that humans can identify 10 thousand different smells, and others say that this figure might actually be an astonishing 400 thousand; nobody knows the right number. But this doesn’t matter; the really important conclusion of the research study coordinated by biochemist Bettina Malnic, from USP, reported in the article by Maria Guimarães, the assistant science editor, beginning on page 16, is that the nervous system recognizes each smell molecule, not through a receptor but through a set of specific receptors in which the molecule attaches itself, on the surface of the neurons found deep inside the nose. This is a huge step forward towards deciphering an enticing code.

In fact, an intriguing coincidence, in an issue whose cover story is a research study on smells, is that Marcel Proust the focus in one of the articles in the humanities section. The article referred to provides details on the participation of Brazilians in an international study on the writing process of this famous French writer in In Search of Lost Time. An indelible association, nowadays it is impossible to link smells and literature without immediately thinking of Proust, of Swann’s Way, and of the “madeleines,” a name full of the sweet and affectionate smell that activates the intense flow of the narrator/character’s memories. The smell creates a unique ambiance, a scrap of memory in its entirety, each life within its singular dynamics. It is also interesting to note that the article by editor Carlos Haag, beginning on page 98, contains a reference to the author of The Guermantes’ Way which reminds one of Brazil and, indirectly, of smells: “Suddenly, I remembered: that same look that I had already seen in the eyes of a Brazilian doctor who wanted to cure my asthma crises with absurd inhalations of plant essences.” This doctor was allegedly a physician from the State of Ceará, who had treated the young Proust in Paris. It is worthwhile reading the details in the  article referred to.

Going back to science, neurons are recurrent in this issue. In the domains of journalism and scientific issues, it is always smart to give them space when they deserve it, given the fascination aroused by all the intricate questions proposed by how the brain works, especially the human brain – and this fascination helps build solid bridges for the relationship between science and society. More specifically, an article by science editor Ricardo Zorzetto, beginning on page 40, reports a major finding on the interaction of pain killers and anti-inflammatory drugs with the nasal receptive neurons, that innervate virtually the entire body and act as the entry to pain. When observing that specific compounds able to directly or indirectly combat pain can travel relatively long distances inside these neurons without losing their efficacy – in the human body, these distances can sometimes be longer than one meter – renowned researcher Sérgio Henrique Ferreira and the team led by Berenice Lorenzetti have made great advances in terms of basic science and opened up the way for new painkilling therapies.

This issue focuses on many human senses. Hearing is the topic of the article written by journalist Yuri Vasconcelos (page 80) on a project led by Embraer to reduce the noise produced by airplanes. Our ears, in and out of airplanes, and in this case, specifically the ears of people who live in the vicinity of airports, will thank these efforts profusely. Silence is music sometimes.

We wish all our readers a joyous, beautiful and intensely creative 2009.

PS – Beginning with this issue, Pesquisa FAPESP will adopt the new Spelling Agreement of the Portuguese Language.