Neural mapping paints a haphazard picture of odor receptors

Feb 03, 2009

Despite the striking aromatic differences between coffee, peppermint, and pine, a new mapping of the nose's neural circuitry suggests a haphazard patchwork where the receptors for such disparate scents are as likely as not to be neighbors.

Inexplicably, this seemingly random arrangement is faithfully preserved across individuals and even species, with cells that process the same scent located in precisely the same location on the olfactory bulb, the brain's first processing station for odors.

The crazy-quilt map of odor-processing neurons on the front lines of the olfactory system is described by Harvard University neuroscientists in the February issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.

"It had been thought that the layout of the olfactory bulb was variable from individual to individual, but followed a chemotopic order where cells handling similar odor responses are near each other," says Markus Meister, the Jeff C. Tarr Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. "Here we show that the layout is actually very precise -- the same from animal to animal -- but doesn't appear to follow any chemotopic order whatsoever."

Working with mice and rats, Meister and colleague Venkatesh N. Murthy recorded neural responses to several hundred distinct odors, including anise, beer, cloves, coffee, ginger, lemon, orange, peppermint, pine, rose, and even fox pheromones. The neuroscientists found that across individuals and even across the two species, bundles of neurons from a given type of odor receptor -- known as glomeruli -- were found in almost exactly the same spot on the olfactory bulb, a sensory structure measuring some four to five millimeters across and located at the very front of the brain.

"Glomeruli from different receptors line the surface of the olfactory bulb like an array of close-packed marbles," says Murthy, professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard. "Across individuals the location of a given glomerulus varies by only one array position. Compared to the size of the map, this represents a remarkable developmental precision of one part in 1,000."

Meister and Murthy then analyzed whether nearby glomeruli detect similar odors, such as those with similar chemical structures. Neuroscientists have previously hypothesized axes of similarities along which odors might be classified.

"One might expect that nearby glomeruli should have similar odor sensitivities," Meister says, "but we were surprised to find this was not the case. The odor response spectra of two neighboring glomeruli were as dissimilar as those of distant glomeruli."

This seemingly haphazard layout of sensory properties stands in marked contrast to other brain maps, such as those governing vision, touch, and hearing. In these three cases, our brains represent the outside world using ordered maps -- such as when neighboring points in visual space activate neighboring points on the retina.

"That sort of arrangement makes sense, since most brain computation is local, relying on short connections between nearby cells," Murthy says. "This is necessary because the connections between neurons occupy most of the volume available to the brain, and long-distance connections require more of this volume."

Meister and Murthy suspect that the deliberate randomness in rodents' odor maps is likely also found in humans, which have only one-third as many receptors but are capable, in some extreme cases, of discerning tens of thousands of distinct smells.

Source: Harvard University

Explore further: US scientists make embryonic stem cells from adult skin

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

For fish, fear smells like sugar

Feb 23, 2012

When one fish gets injured, the rest of the school takes off in fear, tipped off by a mysterious substance known as "Schreckstoff" (meaning "scary stuff" in German). Now, researchers reporting online on February 23 in the ...

Recommended for you

Leeches help save woman's ear after pit bull mauling

Apr 18, 2014

(HealthDay)—A pit bull attack in July 2013 left a 19-year-old woman with her left ear ripped from her head, leaving an open wound. After preserving the ear, the surgical team started with a reconnection ...

New pain relief targets discovered

Apr 17, 2014

Scientists have identified new pain relief targets that could be used to provide relief from chemotherapy-induced pain. BBSRC-funded researchers at King's College London made the discovery when researching ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Cancer stem cells linked to drug resistance

Most drugs used to treat lung, breast and pancreatic cancers also promote drug-resistance and ultimately spur tumor growth. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have discovered ...

Making graphene in your kitchen

Graphene has been touted as a wonder material—the world's thinnest substance, but super-strong. Now scientists say it is so easy to make you could produce some in your kitchen.