Combinatorial odor discrimination in the brain: Attractive and antagonist odor blends are represented in distinct combinations of uniquely identifiable glomeruli

Neil J. Vickers, Thomas A. Christensen, John G. Hildebrand

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145 Scopus citations


The rules governing the central discrimination of odors are complex and poorly understood, but a growing body of evidence supports the hypothesis that olfactory glomeruli may represent functionally distinct coding modules in the brain. Testing this hypothesis requires that both the functional characteristics and the spatial position of the glomerulus under study be uniquely identifiable. To address these questions, we examined a specialized array of glomeruli (the macroglomerular complex; MGC) in the antennal lobe of male moths that receives input from olfactory receptor cells tuned specifically to female-released odorants that either promote upwind flight (conspecific sex pheromones) or inhibit it (interspecific antagonists). By using a three-dimensional reconstruction method based on high-resolution laser-scanning confocal microscopy, we generated precise spatial maps of the MGC glomeruli in two related noctuid species with similar pheromone chemistry, Heliothis virescens and Helicoverpa zea. To determine the breadth of tuning of individual MGC glomeruli in processing information about these social signals, we used intracellular recording and staining methods to examine the responses of projection (output) neurons that innervate MGC glomeruli and that each project an axon to higher integrative centers. In both species, a close correspondence was found between the odor specificity of the projection neurons and the glomerulus (or glomeruli) supplied by them. The binary blend of pheromone components for each species was represented by neural activity in only two distinct glomeruli in both H. virescens and H. zea. Odorants that antagonize upwind flight when they are added to the respective pheromonal blends evoked excitatory activity in output neurons restricted to a third glomerulus in the MGCs of both species. In summary, these results suggest that the selective activation of different combinations of functionally distinct MGC glomeruli is a general means for discriminating these specific attractant and antagonist chemical signals in the brain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)35-56
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Comparative Neurology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Oct 12 1998


  • Antennal lobe
  • Insect
  • Odor coding
  • Projection neurons
  • Sensory maps

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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