Odor representations in the mammalian olfactory bulb

Wiley Interdiscip Rev Syst Biol Med. 2010 Sep-Oct;2(5):603-611. doi: 10.1002/wsbm.85.


A first key step in studying a sensory modality is to define how the brain represents the features of the sensory stimulus. This has proven to be a challenge in olfaction, where even the stimulus features have been a matter of considerable debate. In this review, we focus on olfactory representations in the first stage of the olfactory pathway, the olfactory bulb (OB). We examine the diverging viewpoints on spatially organized versus distributed representations. We then consider how odor sampling through respiration is a key part of the odorant code. Finally, we ask how the bulb handles the challenging task of representing mixtures. We suggest that current evidence points toward a representation that is spatially organized at the inputs but later distributed, with the spatial organization not being used for much computation. Nevertheless, this is a simple representation that effectively represents multiple individual odorants, as well as odor mixtures.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Mammals / physiology
  • Mice
  • Models, Neurological
  • Odorants*
  • Olfactory Bulb / anatomy & histology
  • Olfactory Bulb / physiology*
  • Olfactory Pathways / physiology
  • Olfactory Receptor Neurons / physiology
  • Rats
  • Smell / physiology*
  • Systems Biology