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Moths with a nose for learning
Date:10/2/2008

Much like Pavlov conditioned his dog to salivate in anticipation of food when a bell rang, insects can be trained to perform certain behaviors when enticed with different smells. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have discovered that when training insects, the interval between the signal, or odor, and the rewarddelicious sugar wateris everything. They also found that this process of building odor-sucrose associations would involve a mechanism that allows integration of neural activities (mental representations) that are not nearly coincident. Understanding how associations are built between stimuli and behavior gives insight into the nature of learning. Their findings were published online in Nature Neuroscience.*

Associations or meanings are formed when a connection is perceived among mental representations. In Pavlovs experiments the dog was taught to understand that the ringing of the bell meant food. In this case, the researchers conditioned a particular species of moth, Manduca sexta, to extend its proboscis in anticipation of a dollop of sucrose after being given a scent cue. The researchers attached electrodes to the insects mushroom bodies, a structure in their brains known to be integral to learning and memory, in order to observe the mental representation of the scent through spikes in activity across groups of neurons called Kenyon cells. By observing this process, the group hoped to characterize how odors are represented by this neural population and how this representation gets associated with the reward.

The group found that most of the odor-elicited spiking in the Kenyon cells occurred during the beginning and end of an odor pulse, with little to no spiking in between. NIST/NIH researcher Baranidharan Raman says that this is can be understood by considering the analogy of going into a coffee shop.
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Contact: Mark Esser
mark.esser@nist.gov
301-975-8735
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
Source:Eurekalert  

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