Send to

Choose Destination
Front Behav Neurosci. 2014 Apr 7;8:98. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2014.00098. eCollection 2014.

Learning to smell danger: acquired associative representation of threat in the olfactory cortex.

Author information

Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison Madison, WI, USA ; Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison Madison, WI, USA.


Neuroscience research over the past few decades has reached a strong consensus that the amygdala plays a key role in emotion processing. However, many questions remain unanswered, especially concerning emotion perception. Based on mnemonic theories of olfactory perception and in light of the highly associative nature of olfactory cortical processing, here I propose a sensory cortical model of olfactory threat perception (i.e., sensory-cortex-based threat perception): the olfactory cortex stores threat codes as acquired associative representations (AARs) formed via aversive life experiences, thereby enabling encoding of threat cues during sensory processing. Rodent and human research in olfactory aversive conditioning was reviewed, indicating learning-induced plasticity in the amygdala and the olfactory piriform cortex. In addition, as aversive learning becomes consolidated in the amygdala, the associative olfactory (piriform) cortex may undergo (long-term) plastic changes, resulting in modified neural response patterns that underpin threat AARs. This proposal thus brings forward a sensory cortical pathway to threat processing (in addition to amygdala-based processes), potentially accounting for an alternative mechanism underlying the pathophysiology of anxiety and depression.


acquired associative representation; anxiety; aversive conditioning; olfaction; olfactory sensory cortex; threat encoding

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for Frontiers Media SA Icon for PubMed Central
Loading ...
Support Center