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Decoding the logic of olfaction

Researchers from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have succeeded in mapping the unique patterns of neural activity produced by a wide range of odors, including vanilla, skunk, fish, urine, musk, and chocolate. Revealing these distinct ?but often overlapping ?patterns of neural activity represents a significant step in understanding how the brain translates complex signals from odorant receptors in the nose into odor perception in the brain, the researchers said.

The research team, which was led by HHMI investigator Linda B. Buck at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, published its findings May 23, 2005, in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Buck's co-authors included postdoctoral fellows Zhihua Zou and Fusheng Li. Buck shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with HHMI investigator Richard Axel of Columbia University for their discovery of the huge family of odorant receptors and their previous work on the organization of the olfactory system.

Whenever you inhale the aroma of vanilla, the neurons in your brain "light up" with a characteristic pattern of activity. It turns out that pattern is, perhaps unsurprisingly, unique from the pattern of brain activity associated with a whiff of skunk spray.

The process of smelling an odor begins with odorant receptors that are located on the surface of nerve cells inside the nose. When an odorant receptor detects an odor molecule, it triggers a nerve signal that travels to a way station in the brain called the olfactory bulb. Signals from the olfactory bulb, in turn, travel to the brain's olfactory cortex. Information from the olfactory cortex is then sent to many regions of the brain, ultimately leading to the perceptions of odors and their emotional and physiological effects.

Although there are about a thousand different types of odorant receptors in mice, Buck and her colleagues discovered in previous studies that each indiv
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Source:Howard Hughes Medical Institute


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