Context-driven activation of odor representations in the absence of olfactory stimuli in the olfactory bulb and piriform cortex

Front Behav Neurosci. 2014 Apr 29:8:138. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2014.00138. eCollection 2014.


Sensory neural activity is highly context dependent and shaped by experience and expectation. In the olfactory bulb (OB), the first cerebral relay of olfactory processing, responses to odorants are shaped by previous experiences including contextual information thanks to strong feedback connections. In the present experiment, mice were conditioned to associate an odorant with a visual context and were then exposed to the visual context alone. We found that the visual context alone elicited exploration of the odor port similar to that elicited by the stimulus when it was initially presented. In the OB, the visual context alone elicited a neural activation pattern, assessed by mapping the expression of the immediate early gene zif268 (egr-1) that was highly similar to that evoked by the conditioned odorant, but not other odorants. This OB activation was processed by olfactory network as it was transmitted to the piriform cortex. Interestingly, a novel context abolished neural and behavioral responses. In addition, the neural representation in response to the context was dependent on top-down inputs, suggesting that context-dependent representation is initiated in cortex. Modeling of the experimental data suggests that odor representations are stored in cortical networks, reactivated by the context and activate bulbar representations. Activation of the OB and the associated behavioral response in the absence of physical stimulus showed that mice are capable of internal representations of sensory stimuli. The similarity of activation patterns induced by imaged and the corresponding physical stimulus, triggered only by the relevant context provides evidence for an odor-specific internal representation.

Keywords: Zif268; cell mapping; conditioning; modeling; olfactory bulb; visual context.