Recent research carried out by scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has aimed to gain a better understanding of how the brain processes information in regard to odours. By looking at the circuitry in the brains of fruit flies the study, led by Associate Professor Glenn Turner, has been able to identify the point at which the sensory information coming into the fly’s brain begins to transform into neural signals.
The ability to respond appropriately to different smells is of extreme importance to a fruit fly. That’s why it has dedicated circuitry within its brain to ensure that it gets it right. The study found that particular cells, mushroom body output neurons (MBONs), appear to process information received from an odour into distinct instructions for the fly. The scientists were able to label and follow the activity of the MBONs in a number of flies, which led them to discover a characteristic response pattern in each cell in each individual fly, with the patterns differing between flies. This discovery suggests that MBONs may be responsible for the development of individual odour preferences as the flies start to associate various smells with having a positive or negative experience.
The fly’s response to a particular odour is dependent on the messages relayed by these output neurons to other neurons further down the circuit
The mushroom body output neurons are located in a part of the fruit fly brain which responds to sensory stimuli, and is composed of approximately 2000 neurons. These neurons transmit information received about the odours detected by the fly’s sensory neurons. The fly’s response to a particular odour is dependent on the messages relayed by these output neurons to other neurons further down the circuit.
The researchers used a variety of food smells, such as yeast and vinegar, citronella and a range of more neutral aromas, and then measured the response of the MBONs. They found that there was a wide variation between cells, with each cell being attuned to different aromas. By analysing these responses, patterns began to emerge, with enticing aromas eliciting a different pattern than those of repellent odours. This led the scientists to believe that while the MBONs probably aren’t able to identify a specific smell, they possible communicate the essential qualities of an odour, and confirm whether the fly should follow the odour or fly away. This research is of considerable interest as we see the same differences in odour preference in humans.
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