Learning about natural variation of odor mixtures enhances categorization in early olfactory processing

Fernando F. Locatelli, Patricia C. Fernandez, Brian Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Natural odors are typically mixtures of several chemical components. Mixtures vary in composition among odor objects that have the same meaning. Therefore a central 'categorization' problem for an animal as it makes decisions about odors in natural contexts is to correctly identify odor variants that have the same meaning and avoid variants that have a different meaning. We propose that identified mechanisms of associative and non-associative plasticity in early sensory processing in the insect antennal lobe and mammalian olfactory bulb are central to solving this problem. Accordingly, this plasticity should work to improve categorization of odors that have the opposite meanings in relation to important events. Using synthetic mixtures designed to mimic natural odor variation among flowers, we studied how honey bees learn about and generalize among floral odors associated with food. We behaviorally conditioned honey bees on a difficult odor discrimination problem using synthetic mixtures that mimic natural variation among snapdragon flowers. We then used calcium imaging to measure responses of projection neurons of the antennal lobe, which is the first synaptic relay of olfactory sensory information in the brain, to study how ensembles of projection neurons change as a result of behavioral conditioning. We show how these ensembles become 'tuned' through plasticity to improve categorization of odors that have the different meanings. We argue that this tuning allows more efficient use of the immense coding space of the antennal lobe and olfactory bulb to solve the categorization problem. Our data point to the need for a better understanding of the 'statistics' of the odor space.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2752-2762
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number17
StatePublished - Sep 1 2016


  • Categorization
  • Natural odors
  • Olfaction
  • Plasticity
  • Variability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Insect Science


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