Selective Attention Controls Olfactory Decisions and the Neural Encoding of Odors

Curr Biol. 2018 Jul 23;28(14):2195-2205.e4. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.05.011. Epub 2018 Jun 28.


Critical animal behaviors, especially among rodents, are guided by odors in remarkably well-coordinated manners, yet many extramodal sensory cues compete for cognitive resources in these ecological contexts. That rodents can engage in such odor-guided behaviors suggests that they can selectively attend to odors. Indeed, higher-order cognitive processes-such as learning, memory, decision making, and action selection-rely on the proper filtering of sensory cues based on their relative salience. We developed a behavioral paradigm to reveal that rats are capable of selectively attending to odors in the presence of competing extramodal stimuli. We found that this selective attention facilitates accurate odor-guided decisions, which become further strengthened with experience. Further, we uncovered that selective attention to odors adaptively sharpens their representation among neurons in the olfactory tubercle, an olfactory cortex region of the ventral striatum that is considered integral for evaluating sensory information in the context of motivated behaviors. Odor-directed selective attention exerts influences during moments of heightened odor anticipation and enhances odorant representation by increasing stimulus contrast in a signal-to-noise-type coding scheme. Together, these results reveal that rats engage selective attention to optimize olfactory outcomes. Further, our finding of attention-dependent coding in the olfactory tubercle challenges the notion that a thalamic relay is integral for the attentional control of sensory coding.

Keywords: attention; audition; behavior; electrophysiology; intermodal; olfaction; olfactory cortex; ventral striatum.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Male
  • Odorants*
  • Olfactory Cortex / physiology*
  • Olfactory Pathways / physiology*
  • Olfactory Perception / physiology
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Smell / physiology*