FEB 02, 2023 8:00 AM PST

Neurons Can Smell a Threat

WRITTEN BY: Kerry Charron

A recent study published in The Journal of Neuroscience revealed that our sense of smell guides how the brain responds to a social threat. Using a m model, researchers have identified a specific set of neurons in the accessory olfactory system that can detect the scent of a potential threat.

Understanding the mechanisms involved in the accessory olfactory system can offer critical insights into how the brain processes threat assessment. Threat assessment happens when an animal encounters previously unknown odors. Novel predator odor such as a snake to a mouse can cause the animal to engage in a threat assessment behavior in which the animal is neither acting “fearful” nor “safe.” Most animals rely on scent for survival and reproduction, but the study revealed that neurons “learn” if a smell indicates a threat.

The researchers used video tracking to observe exploring known environments with various odors. Some specific scents included other mice and novel predator odors of snakes. The research team developed a hybrid machinelearning approach that distinguished responses to novel predator odors from responses to non-predator odors. Study author Julian Meeks, Ph.D. explained the research team’s rationale for evaluating responses to odor. He stated, “We are trying to understand how animals interact with smell and how that influences their behavior in threatening social and non-social contexts.” The research shows that specific sets of neurons in our olfactory system are connected to the memory of threatening smells.

The researchers found that nerve cells can inhibit or silence their synaptic partners in a brain region responsible for interpreting social smells. Disrupting the neurons associated with neuroplasticity in the accessory olfactory bulb decreased territorial aggression. This finding links changes cellular function in the pheromone-sensing brain circuitry to changes in an animal’s behavioral responses to social threats.

Identifying changes in animal behavior patterns can lead to a better understanding of how the human brain processes threatening smells.

Sources: Eureka News Alert, The Journal of Neuroscience


About the Author
Bachelor's (BA/BS/Other)
Kerry Charron writes about medical cannabis research. She has experience working in a Florida cultivation center and has participated in advocacy efforts for medical cannabis.
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