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Molecular Biology of Vertebrate Olfactory Receptors and Circuits  

Richard P. Tucker and Qizhi Gong

Animals use their olfactory system for the procurement of food, the detection of danger, and the identification of potential mates. In vertebrates, the olfactory sensory neuron has a single apical dendrite that is exposed to the environment and a single basal axon that projects to the central nervous system (i.e., the olfactory bulb). The first odorant receptors to be discovered belong to an enormous gene family encoding G protein-coupled seven transmembrane domain proteins. Odorant binding to these classical odorant receptors initiates a GTP-dependent signaling cascade that uses cAMP as a second messenger. Subsequently, additional types of odorant receptors using different signaling pathways have been identified. While most olfactory sensory neurons are found in the olfactory sensory neuroepithelium, others are found in specialized olfactory subsystems. In rodents, the vomeronasal organ contains neurons that recognize pheromones, the septal organ recognizes odorant and mechanical stimuli, and the neurons of the Grüneberg ganglion are sensitive to cool temperatures and certain volatile alarm signals. Within the olfactory sensory neuroepithelium, each sensory neuron expresses a single odorant receptor gene out of the large gene family; the axons of sensory neurons expressing the same odorant receptor typically converge onto a pair of glomeruli at the periphery of the olfactory bulb. This results in the transformation of olfactory information into a spatially organized odortopic map in the olfactory bulb. The axons originating from the vomeronasal organ project to the accessory olfactory bulb, whereas the axons from neurons in the Grüneberg ganglion project to 10 specific glomeruli found in the caudal part of the olfactory bulb. Within a glomerulus, the axons originating from olfactory sensory neurons synapse on the dendrites of olfactory bulb neurons, including mitral and tufted cells. Mitral cells and tufted cells in turn project directly to higher brain centers (e.g., the piriform cortex and olfactory tubercle). The integration of olfactory information in the olfactory cortices and elsewhere in the central nervous system informs and directs animal behavior.

Article

Olfactory Perception  

Daniel W. Wesson, Sang Eun Ryu, and Hillary L. Cansler

The perception of odors exerts powerful influences on moods, decisions, and actions. Indeed, odor perception is a major driving force underlying some of the most important human behaviors. How is it that the simple inhalation of airborne molecules can exert such strong effects on complex aspects of human functions? Certainly, just like in the case of vision and audition, the perception of odors is dictated by the ability to transduce environmental information into an electrical “code” for the brain to use. However, the use of that information, including whether or not the information is used at all, is governed strongly by many emotional and cognitive factors, including learning and experiences, as well as states of arousal and attention. Understanding the manners whereby these factors regulate both the perception of odors and how an individual responds to those percepts are paramount for appreciating the orchestration of behavior.

Article

Synaptic Properties of Sensory Thalamus  

Martha E. Bickford

Detailed studies of thalamic circuits have revealed many features that are shared across nuclei. For example, glutamatergic inputs to the thalamus can be placed into three categories based on the size of the synaptic terminals they form, their synaptic arrangements, and the postsynaptic responses they elicit. Remarkably, these three categories can be identified in most sensory nuclei of the dorsal thalamus. Likewise, in most sensory thalamic nuclei, circuits that release the neurotransmitter gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) can be placed into two general categories based on their dendritic or axonal origins. Finally, similar cholinergic circuits have been identified across thalamic nuclei. The ultimate goal of examining the shared versus diverse features of thalamic circuits is to identify fundamental modules, mechanisms, and/or conceptual frameworks, in order to decipher thalamic function.

Article

Taste Buds and Gustatory Transduction: A Functional Perspective  

Alan C. Spector and Susan P. Travers

Everything a person swallows must pass a final chemical analysis by the sensory systems of the mouth; of these, the gustatory system is cardinal. Gustation can be heuristically divided into three basic domains of function: sensory-discriminative (quality and intensity), motivational/affective (promote or deter ingestion), and physiological (e.g., salivation and insulin release). The signals from the taste buds, transmitted to the brain through the sensory branches of cranial nerves VII (facial), IX (glossopharyngeal), and X (vagal), subserve these primary functions. Taste buds are collections of 50–100 cells that are distributed in various fields in the tongue, soft palate, and throat. There are three types of cells that have been identified in taste buds based on their morphological and cytochemical expression profiles. Type II cells express specialized G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCR or GPR) on their apical membranes, which protrude through a break in the oral epithelial lining called the taste pore, that are responsible for the sensing of sweeteners (via the taste type 1 receptor (T1R) 2 + T1R3), amino acids (via the T1R1+T1R3), and bitter ligands (via the taste type 2 receptors (T2Rs)). Type III cells are critical for the sensing of acids via the otopetrin-1 (Otop-1) ion channel. The sensing of sodium, in at least rodents, occurs through the epithelial sodium channel (ENaC), but the exact composition of this channel and the type of taste cell type in which the functional version resides remains unclear. It is controversial whether Type I cells, which have been characterized as glial-like, are involved in sodium transduction or play any taste signaling role. For the most part, receptors for different stimulus classes (e.g., sugars vs. bitter ligands) are not co-expressed, providing significant early functionally related segregation of signals. There remains a persistent search for yet to be identified receptors that may contribute to some functions associated with stimuli representing the so-called basic taste qualities—sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami—as well as unconventional stimuli such as fatty acids (in addition to cluster of differentiation-36 (CD-36), GPR40, and GPR120) and maltodextrins. The primary neurotransmitter in taste receptor cells is ATP, which is released through a voltage-gated heteromeric channel consisting of the calcium homeostasis modulator 1 and 3 (CALHM1/3) and binds with P2X2/X3 receptors on apposed afferent fibers. Serotonin released from Type III cells has been implicated as an additional neurotransmitter, binding with HT3a receptors, and possibly playing a role in acid taste (which is sour to humans). Taste bud cells undergo complete turnover about every two weeks. Although there remains much to be understood about the operations of the taste bud, perhaps the one very clear principle that emerges is that the organization of signals transmitted to the brain is not random and arbitrary to be decoded by complex algorithms in the circuits of the central gustatory system. Rather, the transmission of taste information from the periphery is highly ordered.

Article

Phantom Limbs and Brain Plasticity in Amputees  

Tamar Makin and London Plasticity Lab

Phantom sensations are experienced by almost every person who has lost their hand in adulthood. This mysterious phenomenon spans the full range of bodily sensations, including the sense of touch, temperature, movement, and even the sense of wetness. For a majority of upper-limb amputees, these sensations will also be at times unpleasant, painful, and for some even excruciating to the point of debilitating, causing a serious clinical problem, termed phantom limb pain (PLP). Considering the sensory organs (the receptors in the skin, muscle or tendon) are physically missing, in order to understand the origins of phantom sensations and pain the potential causes must be studied at the level of the nervous system, and the brain in particular. This raises the question of what happens to a fully developed part of the brain that becomes functionally redundant (e.g. the sensorimotor hand area after arm amputation). Relatedly, what happens to the brain representation of a body part that becomes overused (e.g. the intact hand, on which most amputees heavily rely for completing daily tasks)? Classical studies in animals show that the brain territory in primary somatosensory cortex (S1) that was “freed up” due to input loss (hereafter deprivation) becomes activated by other body part representations, those neighboring the deprived cortex. If neural resources in the deprived hand area get redistributed to facilitate the representation of other body parts following amputation, how does this process relate to persistent phantom sensation arising from the amputated hand? Subsequent work in humans, mostly with noninvasive neuroimaging and brain stimulation techniques, have expanded on the initial observations of cortical remapping in two important ways. First, research with humans allows us to study the perceptual consequence of remapping, particularly with regards to phantom sensations and pain. Second, by considering the various compensatory strategies amputees adopt in order to account for their disability, including overuse of their intact hand and learning to use an artificial limb, use-dependent plasticity can also be studied in amputees, as well as its relationship to deprivation-triggered plasticity. Both of these topics are of great clinical value, as these could inform clinicians how to treat PLP, and how to facilitate rehabilitation and prosthesis usage in particular. Moreover, research in humans provides new insight into the role of remapping and persistent representation in facilitating (or hindering) the realization of emerging technologies for artificial limb devices, with special emphasis on the role of embodiment. Together, this research affords a more comprehensive outlook at the functional consequences of cortical remapping in amputees’ primary sensorimotor cortex.

Article

Aging and Olfaction  

Richard L. Doty

Decreased ability to smell is common in older persons. Some demonstrable smell loss is present in more than 50% of those 65 to 80 years of age, with up to 10% having no smell at all (anosmia). Over the age of 80, 75% exhibit some loss with up to 20% being totally anosmic. The causes of these decrements appear multifactorial and likely include altered intranasal airflow patterns, cumulative damage to the olfactory receptor cells from viruses and other environmental insults, decrements in mucosal metabolizing enzymes, closure of the cribriform plate foramina through which olfactory receptor cells axons project to the brain, loss of selectivity of receptor cells to odorants, and altered neurotransmission, including that exacerbated in some age-related neurodegenerative diseases.

Article

Gastropod Feeding Systems: Evolution of Neural Circuits that Generate Diverse Behaviors  

Paul Benjamin and Michael Crossley

It is conceptually reasonable to explore how the evolution of behavior involves changes in neural circuitry. Progress in determining this evolutionary relationship has been limited in neuroscience because of difficulties in identifying individual neurons that contribute to the evolutionary development of behaviors across species. However, the results from the feeding systems of gastropod mollusks provide evidence for this concept of co-evolution because the evolution of different types of feeding behaviors in this diverse group of mollusks is mirrored by species-specific changes in neural circuitry. The evolution of feeding behaviors involves changes in the motor actions that allow diverse food items to be acquired and ingested. The evolution in neural control accompanies this variation in food and the associated changes in flexibility of feeding behaviors. This is present in components of the feeding network that are involved in decision making, rhythm generation, and behavioral switching but is absent in background mechanisms that are conserved across species, such as those controlling arousal state. These findings show how evolutionary changes, even at the single neuron level, closely reflect the details of behavioral evolution.

Article

Hormones and Animal Communication  

Eliot A. Brenowitz

Animals produce communication signals to attract mates and deter rivals during their breeding season. The coincidence in timing results from the modulation of signaling behavior and neural activity by sex steroid hormones associated with reproduction. Adrenal steroids can influence signaling for aggressive interactions outside the breeding season. Androgenic and estrogenic hormones act on brain circuits that regulate the motivation to produce and respond to signals, the motor production of signals, and the sensory perception of signals. Signal perception, in turn, can stimulate gonadal development.

Article

Navigation Towards the Source Through Chemosensory Strategies and Mechanisms  

Yaniv Cohen

Asymmetry of bilateral visual and auditory sensors has functional advantages for depth visual perception and localization of auditory signals, respectively. In order to detect the spatial distribution of an odor, bilateral olfactory organs may compare side differences of odor intensity and timing by using a simultaneous sampling mechanism; alternatively, they may use a sequential sampling mechanism to compare spatial and temporal input detected by one or several chemosensors. Extensive research on strategies and mechanisms necessary for odor source localization has been focused mainly on invertebrates. Several recent studies in mammals such as moles, rodents, and humans suggest that there is an evolutionary advantage in using stereo olfaction for successful navigation towards an odor source. Smelling in stereo or a three-dimensional olfactory space may significantly reduce the time to locate an odor source; this quality provides instantaneous information for both foraging and predator avoidance. However, since mammals are capable of finding odor sources and tracking odor trails with one sensor side blocked, they may use an intriguing temporal mechanism to compare odor concentration from sniff to sniff. A particular focus of this article is attributed to differences between insects and mammals regarding the use of unilateral versus bilateral chemosensors for odor source localization.

Article

Somatosensory System Organization in Mammals and Response to Spinal Injury  

Corinna Darian-Smith and Karen Fisher

Spinal cord injury (SCI) affects well over a million people in the United States alone, and its personal and societal costs are huge. This article provides a current overview of the organization of somatosensory and motor pathways, in the context of hand/paw function in nonhuman primate and rodent models of SCI. Despite decades of basic research and clinical trials, therapeutic options remain limited. This is largely due to the fact that (i) spinal cord structure and function is very complex and still poorly understood, (ii) there are many species differences which can make translation from the rodent to primate difficult, and (iii) we are still some way from determining the detailed multilevel pathway responses affecting recovery. There has also been little focus, until recently, on the sensory pathways involved in SCI and recovery, which are so critical to hand function and the recovery process. The potential for recovery in any individual depends on many factors, including the location and size of the injury, the extent of sparing of fiber tracts, and the post-injury inflammatory response. There is also a progression of change over the first weeks and months that must be taken into account when assessing recovery. There are currently no good biomarkers of recovery, and while axon terminal sprouting is frequently used in the experimental setting as an indicator of circuit remodeling and “recovery,” the correlation between sprouting and functional recovery deserves scrutiny.