Odors are initially encoded in the brain as a set of distinct physicochemical characteristics but are ultimately perceived as a unified sensory object--a "smell." It remains unclear how chemical features encoded by diverse odorant receptors and segregated glomeruli in the main olfactory bulb (MOB) are assembled into integrated cortical representations. Combining patterned optical microstimulation of MOB with in vivo electrophysiological recordings in anterior piriform cortex (PCx), we assessed how cortical neurons decode complex activity patterns distributed across MOB glomeruli. PCx firing was insensitive to single-glomerulus photostimulation. Instead, individual cells reported higher-order combinations of coactive glomeruli resembling odor-evoked sensory maps. Intracellular recordings revealed a corresponding circuit architecture providing each cortical neuron with weak synaptic input from a distinct subpopulation of MOB glomeruli. PCx neurons thus detect specific glomerular ensembles, providing an explicit neural representation of chemical feature combinations that are the hallmark of complex odor stimuli.
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