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What Helps Us Distinguish Similar Scents, Fruit Fly Study

Update Date: Oct 21, 2013 07:07 PM EDT

Have you ever wondered how our brain distinguishes from different smells that are similar in smell and nature of another object?

The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory uses the example of the smell of an orange, lemon and a grapefruit to make its point. These fruits are similar in acidity odor but are still able to be told apart in the brain. In a new study, researchers have mixed these smells and curiosity to explore how the brain reacts to them.

For the study, researchers used the fruit fly to further see if an explanation could be made on how the brain uses different signals to determine a single smell.

"The olfactory system of a fruit fly begins at the equivalent of our nose, where a series of neurons sense and respond to very specific chemicals," according to the study. "These neurons pass their signal on to a group of cells called projection neurons. Then the signal undergoes a transformation as it is passed to a body of neurons in the fly brain called Kenyon cells."

Projection neurons are grasped by the Kenyon cells which have a structure similar to a claw. Each claw wraps itself around one projection neuron and only receives a one input signal. 

"Kenyon cells are also remarkable for their selectivity," said the study. "Because they're selective, they aren't often activated. Yet little is known about what in fact makes them decide to fire a signal."

Researchers used tools from microscopy to look at the various claws on one Kenyon cell and they found that a different response was seen for each claw on a single Kenyon cell.

"Taken together, this work explains how individual Kenyon cells can integrate multiple signals in the brain to "remember" the particular chemical mixture as a single, distinct odor," according to the study.

Researchers plan to use their findings from this study to determine and locate how the brain trains itself to specify the distinct smell of an object which has a similar smell to that of something else. 

The findings are published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

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