Olfactory networks, comprised of sensory neurons and interneurons, detect and process changes in the chemical environment to drive animal behavior. Recent studies combining genetics with behavioral analyses and imaging in worms, flies and mice have revealed new insights into the mechanisms of olfaction. In this discussion, we focus on three interesting findings. First, sensory neuron responses to odor are modulated by neuropeptides. This modulation might serve to extend the range of responses of the sensory neurons and also to integrate internal state information into the chemosensory circuit. Second, genetic tracing studies in mice and flies have shown that the first layer of connections in chemosensory circuits from olfactory epithelium to the glomeruli are stereotyped, while the subsequent connections to higher order sensory processing regions are not. Distributed connectivity to the higher order sensory processing regions has profound implications for how odors are represented in those regions. Third, recent work has revealed that odors are surprisingly sparsely represented in the piriform cortex. The sparse coding in the higher brain centers implies a much greater role for experience and learning in mediating responses to olfactory cues. Analyzing olfactory network function in various species provides us with fascinating clues about how sensory information is acquired, processed and represented at multiple levels within the nervous system.
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