Chemotopic odorant coding in a mammalian olfactory system

J Comp Neurol. 2007 Jul 1;503(1):1-34. doi: 10.1002/cne.21396.


Systematic mapping studies involving 365 odorant chemicals have shown that glomerular responses in the rat olfactory bulb are organized spatially in patterns that are related to the chemistry of the odorant stimuli. This organization involves the spatial clustering of principal responses to numerous odorants that share key aspects of chemistry such as functional groups, hydrocarbon structural elements, and/or overall molecular properties related to water solubility. In several of the clusters, responses shift progressively in position according to odorant carbon chain length. These response domains appear to be constructed from orderly projections of sensory neurons in the olfactory epithelium and may also involve chromatography across the nasal mucosa. The spatial clustering of glomerular responses may serve to "tune" the principal responses of bulbar projection neurons by way of inhibitory interneuronal networks, allowing the projection neurons to respond to a narrower range of stimuli than their associated sensory neurons. When glomerular activity patterns are viewed relative to the overall level of glomerular activation, the patterns accurately predict the perception of odor quality, thereby supporting the notion that spatial patterns of activity are the key factors underlying that aspect of the olfactory code. A critical analysis suggests that alternative coding mechanisms for odor quality, such as those based on temporal patterns of responses, enjoy little experimental support.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Mammals / physiology
  • Molecular Conformation
  • Neurons, Afferent / physiology
  • Odorants
  • Olfactory Bulb / physiology*
  • Olfactory Mucosa / physiology
  • Olfactory Pathways / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Odorant / physiology*
  • Smell / physiology*
  • Space Perception / physiology
  • Structure-Activity Relationship


  • Receptors, Odorant