Seeing What the Nose Tells the Brain: Imaging the Sense of Smell

By Staff

How does the brain identify smells? Understanding the olfactory sense is difficult because animals must detect and identify a huge number of smells and because the olfactory environment varies tremendously over time and space. Matt Wachowiak, PhD, studies how the nervous system encodes odor information and how the brain processes that information. His focus is on understanding how patterns of neural activity encode odor information, how this code changes as a result of neural processing in the brain, and how animals actively control olfactory sensation during behavior. Using optical imaging of the activation of networks of individual living nerve cells as an animal smells an odor, Dr. Wachowiak’s laboratory relates patterns of neural activity to behavioral strategies for sampling odors, such as sniffing; higher-level brain states, such as attention; and measures of odor perception. These combined experimental approaches are yielding new insights into how olfactory sensation works in the alert animal during the performance of natural behaviors.