Why sniff fast? The relationship between sniff frequency, odor discrimination, and receptor neuron activation in the rat

J Neurophysiol. 2009 Feb;101(2):1089-102. doi: 10.1152/jn.90981.2008. Epub 2008 Dec 3.


Many mammals display brief bouts of high-frequency (4-10 Hz) sniffing when sampling odors. Given this, high-frequency sniffing is thought to play an important role in odor information processing. Here, we asked what role rapid sampling behavior plays in odor coding and odor discrimination by monitoring sniffing during performance of discrimination tasks under different paradigms and across different levels of difficulty and by imaging olfactory receptor neuron (ORN) input to the olfactory bulb (OB) during behavior. To eliminate confounds of locomotion and object approach, all experiments were performed in head-fixed rats. Rats showed individual differences in sniffing strategies that emerged during discrimination learning, with some rats showing brief bouts of rapid sniffing on odorant onset and others showing little or no change in sniff frequency. All rats performed with high accuracy, indicating that rapid sniffing is not necessary for odor discrimination. Sniffing strategies remained unchanged even when task difficulty was increased. In the imaging experiments, rapid sniff bouts did not alter the magnitude of odorant-evoked inputs compared with trials in which rapid sniffing was not expressed. Furthermore, rapid sniff bouts typically began before detectable activation of ORNs and ended immediately afterward. Thus rapid sniffing did not enable multiple samples of an odorant before decision-making. These results suggest that the major functional contribution of rapid sniffing to odor discrimination performance is to enable the animal to acquire the stimulus more quickly once it is available rather than to directly influence the low-level neural processes underlying odor perception.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology*
  • Female
  • Odorants*
  • Olfactory Bulb / cytology
  • Olfactory Receptor Neurons / physiology*
  • Psychophysics
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Smell / physiology*
  • Time Factors