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Lobster olfactory scene analysis


Recently, there was a press release and a youtube video from University of Florida about one of my recent papers on neural code in the lobster olfactory system, and also by others [e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4]. I decided to write a bit about it in my own perspective. In general, I am interested in understanding how neurons process and represent information in their output through which they communicate with other neurons and collectively compute. In this paper, we show how a subset of olfactory neurons can be used like a stop watch to measure temporal patterns of smell.

Unlike vision and audition, the olfactory world is perceived through a filament of odor plume riding on top of complex and chaotic turbulence. Therefore, you are not going to be in constant contact with the odor (say the scent of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies) while you search for the source (cookies!). You might not even smell it at all for a long periods of time, even if the target is nearby depending on the air flow. Dogs are well known to be good at this task, and so are many animals. We study lobsters. Lobsters heavily rely on olfaction to track, avoid, and detect odor sources such as other lobsters, predators, and food, therefore, it is important for them to constantly analyze olfactory sensory information to put together an olfactory scene. In auditory system, the miniscule temporal differences in sound arriving to each of your ears is a critical cue for estimating the direction of the sound source. Similarly, one critical component for olfactory scene analysis is the temporal structure of the odor pattern. Therefore, we wanted to find out how neurons encode and process this information.

The neurons we study are of a subtype of olfactory sensory neurons. Sensory neurons detect signals, encode them into a temporal pattern of activity, so that it can be processed by downstream neurons. Thus, it was very surprising when we (Dr. Yuriy Bobkov) found that those neurons were spontaneously generating signals–in the form of regular bursts of action potentials–even in the absence of odor stimuli [Bobkov & Ache 2007]. We were wondering why a sensory system would generate its own signal, because the downstream neurons would not know if the signal sent by these neurons are caused by external odor stimuli (smell), or are spontaneously generated. However, we realized that they can work like little clocks. When external odor molecules stimulate the neuron, it sends a signal in a time dependent manner. Each neuron is too noisy to be a precise clock, but there is a whole population of these neurons, such that together they can measure the temporal aspects critical for the olfactory scene analysis. The temporal aspects, combined with other cues such as local flow information and navigation history, in turn can be used to track targets and estimate distances to sources. Furthermore, this temporal memory was previously believed to be formed in the brain, but our results suggest a simple yet effective mechanism in the very front end, the sensors themselves.

Applications: Currently electronic nose technology is mostly focused on discriminating ‘what’ the odor is. We bring to the table how animals might use the ‘when’ information to reconstruct the ‘where’ information, putting together an olfactory scene. Perhaps it could inspire novel search strategies for odor tracking robots. Another possibility is to build neuromorphic chips that emulate artificial neurons using the same principle to encode temporal patterns into instantaneously accessible information. This could be a part of low-power sensory processing unit in a robot. The principle we found are likely not limited to lobsters and could be shared by other animals and sensory modality.

EDIT: There’s an article on the analytical scientist about this paper.


  • Bobkov, Y. V. and Ache, B. W. (2007). Intrinsically bursting olfactory receptor neurons. J Neurophysiol, 97(2):1052-1057.
  • Park, I. M., Bobkov, Y. V., Ache, B. W., and Príncipe, J. C. (2014). Intermittency coding in the primary olfactory system: A neural substrate for olfactory scene analysis. The Journal of Neuroscience, 34(3):941-952. [pdf]
Creative Commons License
This work by I. Memming Park is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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