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J Neurosci. 2000 Mar 15;20(6):2383-90.

Peripheral odor coding in the rat and frog: quality and intensity specification.

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Laboratoire de Neurosciences et Systèmes Sensoriels, Unité Mixte de Recherche, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique-Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1, 69622 Villeurbanne cedex, France.


In mammals, two recent studies have shown recently that one odor molecule can be recognized by several molecular olfactory receptors (ORs), and a single OR can recognize multiple odor molecules. In addition, one olfactory receptor neuron (ORN) may respond to different stimuli chosen as representative of distinct odor qualities. The aim of the present study was to analyze quality and intensity coding abilities of rat single ORNs, comparing them with previous extensive data gathered in the frog to get insight into the generality of olfactory coding mechanisms over vertebrates. Response properties of 90 rat ORNs to different odors or to one odor at different concentrations were analyzed. In the rat and the frog, odor quality appears to be specified through the identity of activated ORNs. However, rat ORNs have higher response thresholds. This lower sensitivity may be interpreted as an increase in selectivity of rat ORNs for low or medium odor intensities. In these conditions, the lower proportion of activated ORNs could be counterbalanced by their number, as well as by their higher glomerular convergence ratio in the olfactory bulb. From amphibians to mammals, the olfactory system appears to use universal mechanisms based on a combinatorial-coding mode that may allow quasi-infinite possibilities of adaptation to various olfactory environments.

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