MAR 12, 2015 1:24 PM PDT

Understanding How Neurons Shape Memories of Smells

WRITTEN BY: Ilene Schneider
In a study that helps to deconstruct how olfaction is encoded in the brain, neuroscientists at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have identified a type of neuron that appears to help tune, amplify and dampen neuronal responses to chemosensory inputs from the nasal cavity.

The study, published March 9 in Nature Neuroscience, has applications to understanding the root cause of epileptic seizures, which are frequently centered in the olfactory cortex, the part of the brain that processes the sense of smell.

"Our sense of smell is complex and involves many overlapping and interconnected neuronal circuits," said lead author James Sturgill, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher with the Center for Neural Circuits and Behavior in the Department of Neuroscience. "More than hearing or sight, olfaction is based upon past experiences and associations."

"Our research addresses the question of how the brain combines activity from these other circuits with chemosensory inputs to encode an olfactory memory," he said. "Our results suggest that certain neurons in the olfactory cortex serve as tuners and volume controls for various neuronal inputs."

The cells that appear to perform this task are among the 10 percent of neurons in the brain that secrete inhibitory neurotransmitters, chemicals released in the synapse that raise the threshold for neuronal firing. The function of these inhibitory neurons is increasingly recognized as critical to the sensory perceptions of sound and sight. The study is among the first to demonstrate that inhibitory neurons also play a critical role in processing smells.

For the study, neuroscientists employed a technology called optogenetics to de-activate inhibitory neurons in the olfactory cortex of mice. The mice were then presented with different odors and intensities of odors, including lemon, pine and banana, while electrical activity in the olfactory cortex was recorded.

In the absence of the inhibitory neurons, researchers observed an increase in brain activity unrelated to direct processing of the odors. The amount of this background brain activity was unrelated to odor intensity.

When these same neurons were allowed to function normally, the background "noisy" brain activity decreased without distorting the fidelity of the neuronal representation of the odor itself.

Described in signal processing terms, the inhibitory neurons appear to increase the signal-to-noise ratio of brain activity. They may also improve the ability to discern different odors.

"If you wonder how it is possible to smell a banana peel in a garbage can, it is because of this type of subtle neuronal control, achieved through inhibition," said senior author Jeffry Isaacson, PhD, professor of neuroscience.

Neuronal inhibition by these same cells may also assist in preventing excessive excitation in the olfactory cortex that is associated with epilepsy. "The olfactory cortex is the region of the brain most likely to experience epileptic seizures," Isaacson said. "It's likely that the cells involved in processing odors also prevent seizures. Epilepsy can be recast as an abnormality in the function of these inhibitory neurons."

Source: UC San Diego
About the Author
  • Ilene Schneider is the owner of Schneider the Writer, a firm that provides communications for health care, high technology and service enterprises. Her specialties include public relations, media relations, advertising, journalistic writing, editing, grant writing and corporate creativity consulting services. Prior to starting her own business in 1985, Ilene was editor of the Cleveland edition of TV Guide, associate editor of School Product News (Penton Publishing) and senior public relations representative at Beckman Instruments, Inc. She was profiled in a book, How to Open and Operate a Home-Based Writing Business and listed in Who's Who of American Women, Who's Who in Advertising and Who's Who in Media and Communications. She was the recipient of the Women in Communications, Inc. Clarion Award in advertising. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Ilene and her family have lived in Irvine, California, since 1978.
You May Also Like
AUG 05, 2020
Neuroscience
Mitochondrial Enzyme Used to Measure Brain Power Supply
AUG 05, 2020
Mitochondrial Enzyme Used to Measure Brain Power Supply
A new study from University College London (UCL) confirms that the brain steadily uses 20% of the body’s metabolic ...
AUG 25, 2020
Neuroscience
Fear of Germs Leading Factor in COVID-19 Preventative Behavior
AUG 25, 2020
Fear of Germs Leading Factor in COVID-19 Preventative Behavior
Researchers from the University of Connecticut have found that people with a psychological aversion to germs are more li ...
SEP 11, 2020
Neuroscience
Children Use Both Sides of Brain for Language, Unlike Adults
SEP 11, 2020
Children Use Both Sides of Brain for Language, Unlike Adults
Researchers from Georgetown University medical center have found that young children use both the right and left sides o ...
SEP 24, 2020
Health & Medicine
Extreme Isolation can Cause Physical Brain Changes
SEP 24, 2020
Extreme Isolation can Cause Physical Brain Changes
By this point in the year, you’ve either heard or uttered the phrase “quarantine brain.” While the act ...
OCT 02, 2020
Clinical & Molecular DX
Detecting Dystonia in the Blink of an AI
OCT 02, 2020
Detecting Dystonia in the Blink of an AI
A team of scientists have created a diagnostic tool, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), that can pick up on the su ...
OCT 20, 2020
Immunology
The Immune Pause Button Slowing MS Progression
OCT 20, 2020
The Immune Pause Button Slowing MS Progression
  Scientists have a new theory about the genetics behind the progressive, debilitating effects of multiple sclerosi ...
Loading Comments...