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Researchers discover precise olfactory map

November 8, 2001 Each day, we use our noses to help make sense of our surroundings. We may not be as dependent on our olfactory capabilities as dogs or mice, but we are able to recognize and "assign an odor" to many thousands of chemicals in our environment.

These chemicals, called odorants, are detected in the nose by roughly 1,000 different odor receptors. Understanding how signals from those receptors are arranged in higher regions of the brain to yield diverse odor perceptions has been a longstanding goal for researchers. Now, researchers have taken a step toward that goal with a series of experiments that shows how signals from different odor receptors are arranged in the brain's olfactory cortex. The findings provide new insights into the processes that underlie odor perception.

In an article published in the November 8, 2001, issue of Nature, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Linda Buck and colleagues Zhihua Zou, Lisa Horowitz, and Jean-Pierre Montmayeur at Harvard Medical School reported genetic studies in mice that uncovered a precise sensory map in the olfactory cortex. The researchers also showed that this map is virtually identical in different individuals.

Odor molecules that enter the nose are detected by odor receptors located on the surface of olfactory neurons. There are about five million olfactory neurons, which are located in the olfactory epithelium on the wall of the nasal cavity. Each of these neurons extends a long process, called an axon, to the olfactory bulb of the brain. Once in the olfactory bulb, the axon enters a spherical structure, called a glomerulus, where it makes contact with neurons in the bulb.

The bulb neurons, in turn, extend axons to make contact with neurons located in the olfactory cortex. When odor receptors on an olfactory neuron detect an odorant, the neuron is activated. This sets off
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Contact: Jim Keeley
keeleyj@hhmi.org
301-215-8858
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
7-Nov-2001


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