Sensory representations depend strongly on the descending regulation of perceptual processing. Generalization among similar stimuli is a fundamental cognitive process that defines the extent of the variance in physical stimulus properties that becomes categorized together and associated with a common contingency, thereby establishing units of meaning. The olfactory system provides an experimentally tractable model system in which to study the interactions of these physical and psychological factors within the framework of their underlying neurophysiological mechanisms. The authors here show that olfactory associative learning systematically regulates gradients of odor generalization. Specifically, increasing odor-reward pairings, odor concentration, or reward quality--each a determinant of associative learning--significantly transformed olfactory generalization gradients, each narrowing the range of variance in odor quality perceived as likely to share the learned contingency of a conditioned odor stimulus. However, differences in the qualitative features of these three transformations suggest that these different determinants of learning are not necessarily theoretically interchangeable. These results demonstrate that odor representations are substantially shaped by experience and descending influences.
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