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New study reveals how the brain organizes odor information – Harvard Gazette


The premiere of the 1960 movie “Scent of Mystery” was the only event in the history of the movie, making its first and last movie debut “in the glorious Smell-O-Vision.”

Hoping to amaze movie fans with its dynamic olfactory experience and familiar visual and acoustic spectacles, certain theaters are equipped with Rube Goldberg-like devices that pipe different scents directly to their seats. It was.

Audience and critics quickly concluded that the experience stinks. Smelled by technical problems, Smell-O-Vision has been panned into a running gag that occupies a unique position in the history of entertainment.

However, the failure of Smell-O-Vision could not prevent entrepreneurs, especially in recent years, from continuing their dreams of delivering scents to consumers through digital scent technology.

Such efforts have generated news headlines, but with little success, in part due to a limited understanding of how the brain transforms odor chemistry into odor perception. ..

Research by a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School (HMS) provides new insights into the scent mystery. Report in Nature On July 1, researchers first described how the relationships between different odors are encoded in the olfactory cortex, a region of the brain involved in processing odors.

By delivering odors with carefully selected molecular structures and analyzing neural activity in conscious mice, we show that the neuronal expression of cortical odors reflects chemical similarities between odors and that scents are categorized by the brain. Team showed. Moreover, these expressions can be rewired by sensory experience.

Findings suggest neurobiological mechanisms that explain why individuals have a common but highly personalized odor experience.

“We all share a common odor standard. You and I both agree that lemon and lime smell similar, and we agree that they smell different than pizza. Until then, I didn’t know how the brain organizes such information.” Sandy Provert Datta, Associate Professor of Neurobiology at the Brabatnik Institute at HMS.

The results open new research avenues to better understand how the brain translates information about odor chemistry into odor perception.

“This is the first demonstration of how the olfactory cortex encodes information about olfactory chemistry, the essence of olfactory chemistry, the basic sensory cues of olfaction,” Datta said.

Odor calculation

The odor sensation allows animals to identify the chemistry of the surrounding world. Sensory neurons in the nose detect odor molecules and transmit signals to the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb is the structure of the forebrain where the initial odor processing occurs. The olfactory bulb sends information to the piriform cortex, a major structure of the olfactory cortex, for more comprehensive processing.

Unlike light and sound, stimulation can be easily controlled by finely adjusting characteristics such as frequency and wavelength, so it is not possible to investigate how the brain constructs neural expression of small molecules that transmit odors. It Is difficult. In many cases, subtle chemical changes (some carbon atoms contained here or oxygen atoms contained therein) can lead to large differences in olfaction.

Datta with the first author of the study Stan Pashkovsky, A researcher in neurobiology at HMS, and a colleague, addressed this challenge by focusing on the question of how the brain discriminates between related but distinct odors.

“The fact that we all think that the aromas of lemon and lime are similar means that their chemical makeup must somehow evoke a similar or related neural representation of our brain. Masu”
To investigate, researchers have developed an approach to quantitatively compare odor chemicals, for example, similar to the way wavelength differences can be used to quantitatively compare light colors.

Using machine learning, they explored thousands of chemical structures with known odors and analyzed thousands of different features of each structure, such as atomic number, molecular weight, and electrochemical properties. By combining these data, researchers were able to systematically calculate how similar or different the odor was to other odors.

From this library, the team designed three sets of scents. One has intermediate diversity, and odors are divided into related clusters. It is also one of the less diverse, and the structure changes only with increasing carbon chain length.

The mice were then exposed to different combinations of different sets of odors and a multiphoton microscope was used to image the pattern of neural activity in the piriform cortex and olfactory bulb.

Odor prediction

Experiments revealed that the similarity of odor chemistry is reflected by the similarity of neural activity. The relevant odors produced a correlation of neuronal patterns in both the pyriform cortex and the olfactory bulb and were measured by overlapping neuronal activity. In contrast, weakly related odors produced weakly related patterns of activity.

In the cortex, the relevant odors resulted in a more strongly clustered pattern of neural activity compared to the olfactory bulb pattern. This observation was true for individual mice. Cortical representations of odor relationships were so well correlated that they could be used to predict the true identity of a suppressed odor in one mouse based on measurements made in another.

Additional analyzes have identified various chemical features, such as molecular weight and specific electrochemical properties, linked to neural activity patterns. The information gathered from these functions was robust enough to predict cortical responses to one animal’s odor based on experiments with another set of another animal’s odor.

Researchers have also found that these neural representations are flexible. Mice were repeatedly given a mixture of the two odors, and over time, the corresponding neural patterns of these odors in the cortex became more strongly correlated. This occurred even if the two odors had different chemical structures.

The adaptive capacity of the cortex was generated in part by a network of neurons that selectively reformed odor relationships. When normal activity of these networks is blocked, the encoded cortex smells like an olfactory bulb.

“We presented the two scents as if they were from the same source and observed that the brain could passively reconfigure itself to reflect the olfactory experience,” Datta said. It was

He also believes that part of the reason for the similar smells of things like lemons and limes is that there are similar smell perceptions because animals of the same species have similar genomes. However, each individual also has a personalized perception.

“Cortical plasticity may help explain why odors, on the one hand, are invariant between individuals, but they can be customized according to our unique experience,” Datta said.

Together, the results of the study show for the first time how the brain encodes the relationship between odors. It is still unclear how the olfactory cortex translates information about odor chemistry into odor perception, as compared to the relatively well-known visual and auditory cortices.

According to the authors, identifying how the olfactory cortex maps similar odors provides new insights that inform efforts to understand and potentially control odor sensations. became.

“We still don’t fully understand how chemistry translates into perception,” Datta said. “There is no computer algorithm or machine that takes a chemical structure and tells us what that chemical smells like.”

“In order to actually build that machine and be able to create a controllable virtual olfactory world for humans one day, we need to understand how the brain encodes information about odors,” Datter said. He said. “I hope our discoveries are a step in that step.”

Other authors on the study include Juliano Yuri, David Blanc, Daniel Cicharo, Kristen Drummei, Kevin Franks, and Stefano Panzeri.

This work was supported by the Vallee Foundation, the National Institutes of Health (RO11DC016222, U19NS112953), and the Simons collaboration on the global brain.

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