De novo Emergence of Odor Category Representations in the Human Brain

Saturday, February 13, 2016
Lisa Qu, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL
Categorization allows organisms to efficiently extract relevant information from a diverse environment. Due to the multidimensional nature of odor space, this ability is particularly important for the olfactory system. However, categorization relies on experience, and the mechanisms by which the human brain forms categorical representations about new odor percepts are currently unclear. Here we used olfactory psychophysics and multivariate fMRI techniques, in the context of a paired-associates learning task, to examine the emergence of novel odor category representations in the human brain. We found that learning between novel odors and visual category information induces a perceptual re-organization of those odors, in parallel with the emergence of odor category-specific ensemble patterns in perirhinal, orbitofrontal, piriform, and insular cortices. Critically, the learning-induced pattern effects in orbitofrontal and perirhinal cortex predicted the magnitude of categorical learning and perceptual plasticity. The formation of de novo category-specific representations in olfactory and limbic brain regions suggests that such ensemble patterns subserve the development of perceptual classes of information, and imply that these patterns are instrumental to the brain’s capacity for odor categorization.