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Chemotopic Progressions

Chemotopy refers to the systematic spatial representation of odorant chemistry used by the olfactory system in the coding of odorants. Glomeruli of related specificity seem to be arrayed systematically within many glomerular modules. Uptake of 2-DG in the medial, acid-sensitive glomerular module shifted ventrally with increasing carbon number in a series of straight-chained carboxylic acids (28). In the corresponding lateral module, uptake shifted both rostrally and ventrally. Separate focal responses in the more posterior part of both the lateral and the medial bulb also shifted ventrally with increasing carbon number in carboxylic acids. Use of a homologous series of carboxylic acids of the same carbon number, but with different hydrocarbon structures (e.g., double-bonded, branched, and cyclic), demonstrated that the ventral shift in the medial acid-responsive module correlated best with molecular length as opposed to hydrophobicity or volume (24).  

Progressions of activity in the ventral direction are associated with increasing odorant carbon number in aldehydes, esters, acetates, primary alcohols, secondary alcohols, and ketones in the glomerular regions that are differentially sensitive to these odorants, suggesting that such chemotopic progressions represent a fundamental organizational principal in the olfactory system (30). Activity also shifts ventrally with increasing carbon number in a homologous series of alkanes, which lack functional groups altogether (18).  


Why are the chemotopic progressions with increasing carbon number always in the ventral direction? One possibility is that the chemotopic progressions are related to the spatial distributions of the odorants themselves across the olfactory epithelium. Maxwell Mozell and his collaborators showed that odorants partition across the frog epithelium chromatographically (19,49,50). Molecules that are more water-soluble (hydrophilic) absorb more readily into the olfactory mucosa, a situation that would prevent them from reaching the more peripheral and ventral parts of the rat epithelium (59). The less water-soluble (more hydrophobic) odorant molecules would be freer to distribute across the epithelium to reach the more peripheral and ventral zones. Longer odorants within any homologous series of straight-chained chemicals would be more hydrophobic and therefore would be expected to penetrate into the peripheral and ventral epithelium. Because the more peripheral and ventral regions of the epithelium project to more ventral bulbar targets (59,60), this topography could explain the ventral chemotopic progressions within many glomerular modules in the olfactory bulb (30).  

Increasingly hydrophobic molecules may absorb less readily within the olfactory mucosa, allowing them to interact with receptors located in the more peripheral portions of the epithelium, which project to more ventral glomeruli (from 59).

Local bulbar anatomy suggests that chemotopic progressions in the glomerular layer might have important functional consequences. Reciprocal synapses between mitral cell projection neurons and inhibitory interneurons in the glomerular layer (periglomerular neurons and so-called short-axon cells) and in the external plexiform layer (granule cells) are expected to create local lateral inhibitory networks. Strong activity in mitral cells associated with a given glomerulus would likely suppress activity in less strongly stimulated mitral cells associated with neighboring glomeruli (4,46). This pattern of activity would be predicted to "tune" or decorrelate mitral cell activity, so that individual mitral cells would be excited by a more narrow range of molecules than would excite individual sensory neurons. Indeed, pharmacological blockade of inhibition in the bulb widens the molecular receptive range of mitral cells (81). Chemotopic progressions insure that the glomeruli that are nearest neighbors within a module would have the most similar specificity within a homologous series, thereby insuring that tuning involves the most similar odorant molecules.  

Mapping Data
Combinatorial Coding
Molecular Features
Glomerular Modules
Chemotopic Progressions
Global Chemotopy
Feature Interactions
Predictive Value
Odorant Concentration
Odorant Contaminants
Effects of Experience
Literature Cited


This Human Brain Project/Neuroinformatics project is funded by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders and the National Institute of Mental Health