Olfactory perceptual learning: the critical role of memory in odor discrimination

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2003 Sep;27(4):307-28. doi: 10.1016/s0149-7634(03)00050-2.


The major problem in olfactory neuroscience is to determine how the brain discriminates one odorant from another. The traditional approach involves identifying how particular features of a chemical stimulus are represented in the olfactory system. However, this perspective is at odds with a growing body of evidence, from both neurobiology and psychology, which places primary emphasis on synthetic processing and experiential factors--perceptual learning--rather than on the structural features of the stimulus as critical for odor discrimination. In the present review of both psychological and sensory physiological data, we argue that the initial odorant feature extraction/analytical processing is not behaviorally/consciously accessible, but rather is a first necessary stage for subsequent cortical synthetic processing which in turn drives olfactory behavior. Cortical synthetic coding reflects an experience-dependent process that allows synthesis of novel co-occurring features, similar to processes used for visual object coding. Thus, we propose that experience and cortical plasticity are not only important for traditional associative olfactory memory (e.g. fear conditioning, maze learning, and delayed-match-to-sample paradigms), but also play a critical, defining role in odor discrimination.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Neurobiology
  • Neuronal Plasticity
  • Odorants*
  • Olfactory Pathways / anatomy & histology
  • Olfactory Pathways / physiology*
  • Perception*
  • Psychophysics