Blackwell Publishing Journal Backfiles 1879-2005
Most odours are complex mixtures. However, the capacities of olfactory sensory neurons (OSNs) to process complex odour stimuli have never been explored in air-breathing vertebrates. To face this issue, the present study compares the electrical responses of single OSNs to two odour molecules, delivered singly and mixed together, in rats in vivo. This work is the first aimed at demonstrating that single OSNs simultaneously integrate several chemical signals and which, furthermore, attempts to describe such processes for the whole concentration range over which single OSNs can work. The results stress that complex interactions occur between components in odour mixtures and that OSN responses to such mixtures are not simply predictable from the responses to their components. Three types of interactions are described. They are termed suppression, hypoadditivity and synergy, in accord with psychophysical terminology. This allows us to draw links between peripheral odour reception and central odour coding. Indeed, events occurring in single OSNs may account for the dominating or even the masking effects of odour molecules in complex mixtures, i.e. for the prevailing action of a minor component in the final qualitative perception of a mixture. We conclude that our observations with binary mixtures anticipate the complexity of processes which may rise at the level of a single OSN in physiological conditions. Following this hypothesis, a natural odour would induce a multi-chemical integration at the level of single OSNs which may result in refining their individual odour-coding properties, leading them to play a crucial role in the final performance of the olfactory system.
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