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Neural mapping paints a haphazard picture of odor receptors
Date:2/3/2009

and cellular biology at Harvard. "Across individuals the location of a given glomerulus varies by only one array position. Compared to the size of the map, this represents a remarkable developmental precision of one part in 1,000."

Meister and Murthy then analyzed whether nearby glomeruli detect similar odors, such as those with similar chemical structures. Neuroscientists have previously hypothesized axes of similarities along which odors might be classified.

"One might expect that nearby glomeruli should have similar odor sensitivities," Meister says, "but we were surprised to find this was not the case. The odor response spectra of two neighboring glomeruli were as dissimilar as those of distant glomeruli."

This seemingly haphazard layout of sensory properties stands in marked contrast to other brain maps, such as those governing vision, touch, and hearing. In these three cases, our brains represent the outside world using ordered maps -- such as when neighboring points in visual space activate neighboring points on the retina.

"That sort of arrangement makes sense, since most brain computation is local, relying on short connections between nearby cells," Murthy says. "This is necessary because the connections between neurons occupy most of the volume available to the brain, and long-distance connections require more of this volume."

Meister and Murthy suspect that the deliberate randomness in rodents' odor maps is likely also found in humans, which have only one-third as many receptors but are capable, in some extreme cases, of discerning tens of thousands of distinct smells.


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Contact: Steve Bradt
steve_bradt@harvard.edu
617-496-8070
Harvard University
Source:Eurekalert

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