Information processing in the mammalian olfactory system

Physiol Rev. 2005 Jan;85(1):281-317. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00008.2004.


Recently, modern neuroscience has made considerable progress in understanding how the brain perceives, discriminates, and recognizes odorant molecules. This growing knowledge took over when the sense of smell was no longer considered only as a matter for poetry or the perfume industry. Over the last decades, chemical senses captured the attention of scientists who started to investigate the different stages of olfactory pathways. Distinct fields such as genetic, biochemistry, cellular biology, neurophysiology, and behavior have contributed to provide a picture of how odor information is processed in the olfactory system as it moves from the periphery to higher areas of the brain. So far, the combination of these approaches has been most effective at the cellular level, but there are already signs, and even greater hope, that the same is gradually happening at the systems level. This review summarizes the current ideas concerning the cellular mechanisms and organizational strategies used by the olfactory system to process olfactory information. We present findings that exemplified the high degree of olfactory plasticity, with special emphasis on the first central relay of the olfactory system. Recent observations supporting the necessity of such plasticity for adult brain functions are also discussed. Due to space constraints, this review focuses mainly on the olfactory systems of vertebrates, and primarily those of mammals.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Mammals
  • Odorants
  • Olfactory Pathways / physiology*
  • Smell / physiology*