Parallel processing of afferent olfactory sensory information

Christopher E. Vaaga, Gary L. Westbrook

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Key points: The functional synaptic connectivity between olfactory receptor neurons and principal cells within the olfactory bulb is not well understood. One view suggests that mitral cells, the primary output neuron of the olfactory bulb, are solely activated by feedforward excitation. Using focal, single glomerular stimulation, we demonstrate that mitral cells receive direct, monosynaptic input from olfactory receptor neurons. Compared to external tufted cells, mitral cells have a prolonged afferent-evoked EPSC, which serves to amplify the synaptic input. The properties of presynaptic glutamate release from olfactory receptor neurons are similar between mitral and external tufted cells. Our data suggest that afferent input enters the olfactory bulb in a parallel fashion. Abstract: Primary olfactory receptor neurons terminate in anatomically and functionally discrete cortical modules known as olfactory bulb glomeruli. The synaptic connectivity and postsynaptic responses of mitral and external tufted cells within the glomerulus may involve both direct and indirect components. For example, it has been suggested that sensory input to mitral cells is indirect through feedforward excitation from external tufted cells. We also observed feedforward excitation of mitral cells with weak stimulation of the olfactory nerve layer; however, focal stimulation of an axon bundle entering an individual glomerulus revealed that mitral cells receive monosynaptic afferent inputs. Although external tufted cells had a 4.1-fold larger peak EPSC amplitude, integration of the evoked currents showed that the synaptic charge was 5-fold larger in mitral cells, reflecting the prolonged response in mitral cells. Presynaptic afferents onto mitral and external tufted cells had similar quantal amplitude and release probability, suggesting that the larger peak EPSC in external tufted cells was the result of more synaptic contacts. The results of the present study indicate that the monosynaptic afferent input to mitral cells depends on the strength of odorant stimulation. The enhanced spiking that we observed in response to brief afferent input provides a mechanism for amplifying sensory information and contrasts with the transient response in external tufted cells. These parallel input paths may have discrete functions in processing olfactory sensory input.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6715-6732
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Physiology
Issue number22
StatePublished - Nov 15 2016


  • external tufted cells
  • mitral cells
  • olfactory bulb
  • olfactory receptor neurons
  • synaptic transmission

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology


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