Interplay between sniffing and odorant sorptive properties in the rat

J Neurosci. 2012 Oct 31;32(44):15577-89. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1464-12.2012.


For decades it has been known that the olfactory sensory epithelium can act like a chromatograph, separating odorants based on their air-mucus sorptive properties (Mozell and Jagodowicz, 1973). It has been hypothesized that animals could take advantage of this property, modulating sniffing behavior to manipulate airflow and thereby directing odorant molecules to the portions of the olfactory epithelium where they are best detected (Schoenfeld and Cleland, 2005). We report here a test of this hypothesis in behaving rats, monitoring respiratory activity through diaphragm electromyogram, which allowed us to estimate nasal airflow. In our test rats had to detect either low-sorption (LS) or high-sorption (HS) monomolecular odorant targets from the same stimulus set of six binary odor mixtures. We found that it is more difficult for rats to detect LS than HS targets. Although sniffing bouts are the same duration for each group (∼500 ms), sniffing longer and using more inhalations results in better performance for rats assigned to detect LS targets. LS-detecting rats also increase the duration of individual inhalations (81 ms for LS- vs 69 ms for HS-detecting rats) and sniff at lower frequencies (7.8 Hz for LS- vs 8.6 Hz for HS-detecting rats) when learning to sense the target. When LS-detecting rats do discriminate well, they do so with lower airflow, more sniffs, and lower frequency of sniffing than HS-detecting counterparts. These data show that rats adjust sniff strategies as a function of odorant sorptiveness and provide support for the chromatographic and zonation hypotheses.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adsorption
  • Algorithms
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Conditioning, Operant / physiology
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology
  • Electrodes
  • Electromyography
  • Male
  • Odorants*
  • Olfactory Bulb / physiology
  • Olfactory Mucosa / innervation*
  • Olfactory Mucosa / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Respiratory Mechanics / physiology*
  • Stimulation, Chemical