Columbia University researchers say that the brain protein that causes human version of Mad-Cow disease, known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), may also be involved in aiding our sense of smell.
Dr. Stuart Firestein, who led the study on mice, has revealed that the animals that were bred to lack the prion protein could not find buried food or choose between smells.
He believes that the loss of the protein's original role might be responsible for some of the symptoms of prion disease.
In their study report, the researchers said that the mice without prion-protein, though retained the ability to detect scents, had lost some higher functions which required that smell information to be analysed and processed by the brain.
They revealed that they had observed changes in the communication between neurons in the nerve cells of the olfactory bulb, part of the forebrain that deals with odours.
According to Nature Neuroscience, the researchers found the mice to develop the ability to discriminate between odours when they restored the protein to that part of the brain.
The team agreed that their finding had no direct link to the diseases caused by faulty prion proteins.
However, they insisted that the discovery might help account for some of the symptoms experienced by patients, which might be due to the failure of the proteins to do their normal job properly, rather than the damage caused by accumulation of defective prions.
This is not the first time that any research team has suggested that the prion protein may play some beneficial role, for Leeds University scientist Professor Nigel Hooper said in 2007 that it might help reduce the formation of "plaques" linked to the onset of Alzheimer's Disease.
"It's likely that these proteins have a number of roles in various different body systems, including the olfactory system, as suggested here. I don't think you can say that it is so mysterious any more, or that we do not understand what it does," the BBC quoted him of saying of the newly-reported research.