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Neuroscientists discover new cell type that may help brain maintain memories of smells

Neuroscientists at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine have discovered a new cell type in the part of the brain that processes our sense of smell. This new cell type, the Blanes cell, is a member of a group of previously unstudied brain cells described by the Spanish neuroanatomist Blanes (pronounced blon es) in the late 1800s. Blanes cells have unusual properties which may help the brain maintain memories of smells and also opens a new approach to understanding the basis of memory impairments in Alzheimer's disease. Their paper appears in the March 16 issue of the journal Neuron.

It was surprising to the researchers that no one had studied these cells before given the references to them in important scientific papers going back for over a hundred years.

"This is a well-studied part of the brain," said Ben W. Strowbridge, Ph.D., associate professor of neuroscience at Case and the senior author. "These are large cells that weren't really hiding."

The perception of a smell begins when odor molecules in the air interact with one of the millions of specialized olfactory sensory neurons in the nose. These sensory neurons then send signals to a brain region called the olfactory bulb, where the work of recognizing the odor begins. One of the puzzling aspects of olfaction is how our perception of an odor can evolve over multiple sniffs. Because of their unique ability to maintain their activity between sniffs, Blanes cells may provide the missing link needed to answer this critical question. While there are relatively few Blanes cells in the brain, they appear to play a critical role in shaping the output of the olfactory system.

The Case researchers found that the influence of Blanes cells on the output signals leaving the olfactory bulb is magnified hundreds of times by the specific pattern of connections they make with other cell types. One of the surprising results from their study was the discovery that
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Contact: George Stamatis
george.stamatis@case.edu
216-368-3635
Case Western Reserve University
15-Mar-2006


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