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Carnegie Mellon study reveals that odor discrimination is linked to the timing at which neurons fire

PITTSBURGH -- Timing is everything. For a mouse trying to discriminate between the scent of a tasty treat and the scent of the neighborhood cat, timing could mean life or death. In a striking discovery, Carnegie Mellon University scientists have linked the timing of inhibitory neuron activity to the generation of odor-specific patterns in the brain's olfactory bulb, the area of the brain responsible for distinguishing odors.

Their work, appearing in the Nov. 8 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, describes for the first time a cellular mechanism linking a specific stimulus to the timing at which inhibitory neurons fire. This breakthrough lays a cellular foundation for the "temporal coding hypothesis," which proposes that odor identity is encoded by the timing of neuronal firing and not the rate at which neurons fire.

Past research has shown that specific odors trigger unique patterns of electrical activity in the brain. Generating these patterns requires reliably timed inhibition, but relatively little was known about the timing of the activity of inhibitory neurons -- until now.

"There is a clear link between which odor is being presented and the time at which inhibitory neurons fire. This timing controls which excitatory neurons are active and at which time. This modulation contributes to the generation of reliable temporal patterns of neuronal activity," said Nathan Urban, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the Mellon College of Science at Carnegie Mellon.

Populations of mitral cells, a type of excitatory neuron in the olfactory bulb, receive input from neurons in the nose that respond to a single odorant. After receiving this input, the mitral cells convey messages about odor identity to other parts of the brain. But they don't simply relay information. Their activity, and therefore which message they send, is modulated by the inhibitory activity of granule cells. In a first, Urban has shown that the ti
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Contact: Lauren Ward
wardle@andrew.cmu.edu
412-268-7761
Carnegie Mellon University
7-Nov-2006


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