Dynamic representation of odours by oscillating neural assemblies



Stimulus evoked oscillatory synchronization of neural assemblies has been most clearly documented in the olfactory and visual systems. Recent results with the olfactory system of locusts show that information about odour identity is contained in spatial and temporal aspects of an oscillatory population response. This suggests that brain oscillations may reflect a common reference for messages encoded in time. Although stimulus-evoked oscillatory phenomena are reliable, their roles in perception, memory and pattern recognition remain to be demonstrated. Using honey bees, we demonstrated that odour encoding involves, as in locusts, the oscillatory synchronization of assemblies of neurons, and that this synchronization is, here also, selectively abolished by the GABA receptor antagonist picrotoxin. In collaboration with Dr Brian Smith's laboratory, we showed, using a behavioural learning paradigm, that picrotoxin-induced desynchronization impairs the discrimination of molecularly similar odourants, but not that of dissimilar odours. It appears, therefore, that oscillatory synchronization of neuronal assemblies is relevant, and essential for fine odour discrimination. Finally, experiments with locust mushroom body neurons, two synapses downstream from the antennal lobe, indicate that their responses to odours become less specific when antennal lobe neurons are desynchronized by picrotoxin injection. These results suggest that oscillatory synchronization and the kind of temporal encoding it affords provide an additional dimension by which the brain can segment spatially overlapping stimulus representations.