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New Insights Into How the Brain Processes Scents

Summary: Theta oscillations may play an important role in olfactory processing, a new study reports.

Source: Northwestern Medicine.

Theta oscillations, a type of rhythmic electrical activity that waxes and wanes four to eight times per second, may play a fundamental role in processing scent in the human brain, according to a new study recently published in Neuron.

The use of intracranial EEG recordings in patients with medically resistant epilepsy allowed Jay Gottfried, MD, PhD, professor of Neurology, and his team to characterize, for the first time, the time-frequency dynamics of odor processing in the human piriform cortex, a region in the brain important for smell.

“The study we did here was to understand what happens at the microstructural level of the human brain when you smell an odor,” Gottfried said. “The advantage of the approach is we can record the physiological rhythms of the brain using these electrodes in this unique and rare patient population.”

They found that odors could be decoded as early as 110 milliseconds from a person’s first sniff.

“A lot of people think that the sense of smell is a very slow sense, so this study highlights the speed of the sense of smell and relates it to its biological underpinnings,” Gottfried said.

Heidi Jiang, a graduate student and the first author of the study, obtained electrophysiological recordings while patients took part in a cued odor detection task.

Jiang and Gottfried found that odor stimulation enhanced theta waves in the piriform cortex, in each of seven patients. Under conditions where patients smelled odorless air, the scientists observed no change in theta waves. Across four different odors, the physiological features of the theta waves could be used to distinguish between each odor.

“Based on this rhythmic activity, we can decode which smell the patient has encountered,” Gottfried said. “These oscillations contain critical information about whether the smell is strawberry, peanut butter, chocolate or garlic, and this information is already available to the brain within a very rapid timeframe.”

Additionally, with electrodes in the piriform cortex and hippocampus, they found the presence of odor caused both regions to fall into a synchronized rhythm, suggesting that theta oscillations facilitate the coordination and exchange of information between those two areas.

“What is neat about this finding is that the hippocampus is a central hub through which memories can be reactivated and retrieved — like what ice cream you ate, when you ate it, and where you ate it. It’s possible that the hippocampus is able to telegraph some of that information to the piriform cortex to facilitate olfactory processing,” Gottfried said.

As noted above, the subjects in the study were patients with medically resistant epilepsy who had existing electrode implants placed for purely clinical considerations, but gave the scientists an opportunity to gather detailed electrophysiological data.

“A lot of our work has used fMRI techniques to relate brain activity patterns in the human brain to different odor perceptual states such as memory, but the fMRI work provides a very limited understanding of the mechanisms and timing that support the sense of smell. So it has been a special opportunity to work with these rare epilepsy patients at Northwestern,” Gottfried said.

Previous research has shown that theta oscillations are a dominant rhythm in rodent brains, in line with the rapid breathing rate of rats and mice. Gottfried found that while the human brain oscillates at this same theta timescale, humans breathe at a much slower rate.

Image shows a girl sniffing a rose.

Researchers found that odors could be decoded as early as 110 milliseconds from a person’s first sniff. NeuroscienceNews.com image is for illustrative purposes only.

“It poses a question in my mind that, for humans, theta isn’t simply something that falls in line with the breathing cycle, but rather might be a more fundamental rhythm for odor processing in the brain,” Gottfried said.

A Type of Timekeeping Mechanism

In terms of functional significance, Gottfried believes these oscillations might serve as an internal clock in the brain.

“The brain doesn’t really have access to an external time reference, and across numerous studies there is more and more evidence to suggest it is the oscillations in the brain that are time-keeping mechanisms,” Gottfried said. “The brain may use these oscillations to segment information into malleable packets of information.”

Gottfried said in future studies, he wants to understand more about the importance of theta oscillations in contributing to odor perception and test the hypothesis that theta rhythms might serve as a clock for regulating brain dynamics.

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: This study was supported by grants from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders R01DC013243 and R21DC012014 and a training grant from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program DGE-1324585.

Source: Sarah Plumridge – Northwestern Medicine
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “Theta Oscillations Rapidly Convey Odor-Specific Content in Human Piriform Cortex” by Heidi Jiang, Stephan Schuele, Joshua Rosenow, Christina Zelano, Josef Parvizi, James X. Tao, Shasha Wu, and Jay A. Gottfried in Neuron. Published online April 5 2017 doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2017.03.021

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
Northwestern Medicine “New Insights Into How the Brain Processes Scents.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 6 June 2017.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/olfactory-processing-6849/>.
Northwestern Medicine (2017, June 6). New Insights Into How the Brain Processes Scents. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved June 6, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/olfactory-processing-6849/
Northwestern Medicine “New Insights Into How the Brain Processes Scents.” http://neurosciencenews.com/olfactory-processing-6849/ (accessed June 6, 2017).

Abstract

Theta Oscillations Rapidly Convey Odor-Specific Content in Human Piriform Cortex

Highlights

•Odor elicits theta power selectively in human piriform cortex within 500 ms of sniff
•Presence (versus absence) of odor enhances piriform-hippocampal theta phase locking
•Odor-specific content can be decoded from piriform oscillations as early as 110 ms

Summary
Olfactory oscillations are pervasive throughout vertebrate and invertebrate nervous systems. Such observations have long implied that rhythmic activity patterns play a fundamental role in odor coding. Using intracranial EEG recordings from rare patients with medically resistant epilepsy, we find that theta oscillations are a distinct electrophysiological signature of olfactory processing in the human brain. Across seven patients, odor stimulation enhanced theta power in human piriform cortex, with robust effects at the level of single trials. Importantly, classification analysis revealed that piriform oscillatory activity conveys olfactory-specific information that can be decoded within 110–518 ms of a sniff, and maximally within the theta frequency band. This temporal window was also associated with increased theta-specific phase coupling between piriform cortex and hippocampus. Together these findings suggest that human piriform cortex has access to olfactory content in the time-frequency domain and can utilize these signals to rapidly differentiate odor stimuli.

“Theta Oscillations Rapidly Convey Odor-Specific Content in Human Piriform Cortex” by Heidi Jiang, Stephan Schuele, Joshua Rosenow, Christina Zelano, Josef Parvizi, James X. Tao, Shasha Wu, and Jay A. Gottfried in Neuron. Published online April 5 2017 doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2017.03.021

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