Odor concentration invariance by chemical ratio coding

Front Syst Neurosci. 2008 Apr 8:1:3. doi: 10.3389/neuro.06.003.2007. eCollection 2007.


Many animal species rely on chemical signals to extract ecologically important information from the environment. Yet in natural conditions chemical signals will frequently undergo concentration changes that produce differences in both level and pattern of activation of olfactory receptor neurons. Thus, a central problem in olfactory processing is how the system is able to recognize the same stimulus across different concentrations. To signal species identity for mate recognition, some insects use the ratio of two components in a binary chemical mixture to produce a code that is invariant to dilution. Here, using psychophysical methods, we show that rats also classify binary odor mixtures according to the molar ratios of their components, spontaneously generalizing over at least a tenfold concentration range. These results indicate that extracting chemical ratio information is not restricted to pheromone signaling and suggest a general solution for concentration-invariant odor recognition by the mammalian olfactory system.

Keywords: concentration-invariance; odor recognition; olfaction; ratio.