Animals are constantly bombarded with stimuli, which presents a fundamental problem of sorting among pervasive uninformative stimuli and novel, possibly meaningful stimuli. We evaluated novelty detection behaviorally in honey bees as they position their antennae differentially in an air stream carrying familiar or novel odors. We then characterized neuronal responses to familiar and novel odors in the first synaptic integration center in the brain-the antennal lobes. We found that the neurons that exhibited stronger initial responses to the odor that was to be familiarized are the same units that later distinguish familiar and novel odors, independently of chemical identities. These units, including both tentative projection neurons and local neurons, showed a decreased response to the familiar odor but an increased response to the novel odor. Our results suggest that the antennal lobe may represent familiarity or novelty to an odor stimulus in addition to its chemical identity code. Therefore, the mechanisms for novelty detection may be present in early sensory processing, either as a result of local synaptic interaction or via feedback from higher brain centers.
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