Speed and accuracy of olfactory discrimination in the rat

Nat Neurosci. 2003 Nov;6(11):1224-9. doi: 10.1038/nn1142. Epub 2003 Oct 19.


The sense of smell is typically thought of as a 'slow' sense, but the true temporal constraints on the accuracy of olfactory perception are not known. It has been proposed that animals make finer odor discriminations at the expense of additional processing time. To test this idea, we measured the relationship between the speed and accuracy of olfactory discrimination in rats. We found that speed of discrimination was independent of odor similarity, as measured by overlap of glomerular activity patterns. Even when pushed to psychophysical limits using mixtures of two odors, rats needed to take only one sniff (<200 ms at theta frequency) to make a decision of maximum accuracy. These results show that, for the purpose of odor quality discrimination, a fully refined olfactory sensory representation can emerge within a single sensorimotor or theta cycle, suggesting that each sniff can be considered a snapshot of the olfactory world.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Choice Behavior
  • Cluster Analysis
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology*
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology
  • Inhalation / physiology
  • Male
  • Movement / physiology
  • Odorants*
  • Olfactory Bulb / drug effects
  • Olfactory Bulb / physiology
  • Olfactory Pathways / physiology*
  • Psychometrics
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Reaction Time
  • Respiration
  • Sensory Thresholds / physiology
  • Smell / physiology*
  • Space Perception / physiology*
  • Stimulation, Chemical
  • Time Factors