To study the mechanism whereby odorants are encoded in the nervous system, we studied the glomerular-layer activity patterns in the rat olfactory bulb evoked by closely related odorants from different chemical families. These odorants had a common straight-chain hydrocarbon structure, but differed systematically in their functional groups. Neural activity was mapped across the entire glomerular layer by using the ¿(14)C2-deoxyglucose method. Group responses were averaged and compared by using data matrices. The glomerular activity patterns that resulted from this analysis were comprised of modules. Unique combinations of modules were activated by each odorant, demonstrating what may be part of the neural code for odorants. Most of the modules were clustered together in the bulb, perhaps providing for enhanced contrast between related chemicals by means of lateral inhibition. We also determined whether changes in odorant concentration would affect spatial patterns of glomerular activity. Two odorants, pentanal and 2-hexanone, evoked different patterns at increased concentrations, with additional glomeruli being recruited at a great distance from glomeruli in which activity was evoked at lower concentrations. Humans report that both of these odorants change in perceived odor with increasing concentration. Three other odorants (pentanoic acid, methyl pentanoate, and pentanol) did not recruit new areas of glomerular activation with increasing concentration, and humans do not report a changed odor across concentrations of these odorants. The results suggest that changes in modular glomerular activity patterns could underlie altered odor perception across odorant concentrations, and they provide additional support for a combinatorial, spatially based code in the olfactory system.
Copyright 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.