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5 December 2013 11:26 am ,
Vol. 342 ,
An animal rights group known as the Nonhuman Rights Project filed lawsuits in three New York courts this week in an...
Researchers have been hot on the trail of the elusive Denisovans, a type of ancient human known only by their DNA and...
Thousands of scientists in the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) are about to lose their jobs as a result of the...
Dyslexia, a learning disability that hinders reading, hasn't been associated with deficits in vision, hearing, or...
Exotic, elusive, and dangerous, snakes have fascinated humankind for millennia. They can be hard to find, yet their...
Researchers have sequenced and analyzed the first two snake genomes, which represent two evolutionary extremes. The...
Snake venoms are remarkably complex mixtures that can stun or kill prey within minutes. But more and more researchers...
At age 30, Dutch biologist Freek Vonk has built up a respectable career as a snake scientist. But in his home country,...
- 5 December 2013 11:26 am , Vol. 342 , #6163
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The Secret Language of Scents
13 November 1996 7:00 pm
Like wartime operatives sending messages encrypted with secret plans, the brain has a language all its own to represent scents, from the aroma of buttered popcorn to the stench of rotting pumpkin. Now scientists think they have cracked the code: Insect nerve cells appear to fire in a sequence unique to each smell, says a report in the 14 November issue of Nature.
To try to interpret how the nose knows individual scents, neurobiologist Gilles Laurent and graduate student Michael Wehr of the California Institute of Technology turned to a creature lacking the facial feature: the locust. The locust detects smells with its antennae, and Laurent's previous work had shown that odors excite a group of about 100 neurons located in the antennal bulb to begin firing a rhythmic series of pulses--an oscillation. "All the neurons in that area are like musicians in an orchestra," he says, keeping to the same overall tempo. Now the duo's latest research shows how that oscillation could encode information about a particular smell. Each neuron maintains the tempo set by the oscillation but, like the individual musicians in an orchestra, plays a melody that is different for each smell.
The finding provides new insight into how neurons deliver information, says neurobiologist Terry Sejnowski of the Salk Institute in San Diego. "The oscillation, rather than being the code itself, is the packaging of the code," he says. Biologists have observed precisely timed neural impulses in sensory systems of other animals, but they have not been able to decipher the meaning behind the patterns. The next step, Laurent says, is to try to connect unique nerve firing patterns to behavioral responses.