Neural mechanisms of mammalian olfactory learning

Prog Neurobiol. 1997 Mar;51(4):457-81. doi: 10.1016/s0301-0082(96)00069-x.


In this review, we compare the neural basis of olfactory learning in three specialized contexts that occur during sensitive periods of enhanced neural plasticity. Although they involve very different behavioural contexts, they share several common features, including a dependence on noradrenergic transmission in the olfactory bulb. The most extensively characterized of these examples is the learning of pheromonal information by female mice during mating. While this form of learning is unusual in that the neural changes underlying the memory occur in the accessory olfactory bulb at the first stage of sensory processing, it involves similar neural mechanisms to other forms of learning and synaptic plasticity. The learning of newborn lamb odours after parturition in sheep, and the olfactory conditioning in neonatal animals such as rats and rabbits, are mediated by the main olfactory system. Although the neural mechanisms for learning in the main olfactory system are more distributed, they also involve changes occurring in the olfactory bulb. In each case, odour learning induces substantial structural and functional changes, including increases in inhibitory neurotransmission. In the main olfactory bulb, this probably represents a sharpening of the odour-induced pattern of activity, due to increases in lateral inhibition. In contrast, the different morphology of mitral cells in the accessory olfactory bulb results in increased self-inhibition, disrupting the transmission of pheromonal information. Although these examples occur in highly specialized contexts, comparisons among them can enhance our understanding of the general neural mechanisms of olfactory learning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Olfactory Bulb / physiology*
  • Pheromones / physiology
  • Rabbits
  • Rats
  • Smell / physiology*
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology


  • Pheromones