Antagonism in olfactory receptor neurons and its implications for the perception of odor mixtures

Gautam Reddy, Joseph D. Zak, Massimo Vergassola, Venkatesh N. Murthy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations


Natural environments feature mixtures of odorants of diverse quantities, qualities and complexities. Olfactory receptor neurons (ORNs) are the first layer in the sensory pathway and transmit the olfactory signal to higher regions of the brain. Yet, the response of ORNs to mixtures is strongly non-additive, and exhibits antagonistic interactions among odorants. Here, we model the processing of mixtures by mammalian ORNs, focusing on the role of inhibitory mechanisms. We show how antagonism leads to an effective ‘normalization’ of the ensemble ORN response, that is, the distribution of responses of the ORN population induced by any mixture is largely independent of the number of components in the mixture. This property arises from a novel mechanism involving the distinct statistical properties of receptor binding and activation, without any recurrent neuronal circuitry. Normalization allows our encoding model to outperform non-interacting models in odor discrimination tasks, leads to experimentally testable predictions and explains several psychophysical experiments in humans.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere34958
StatePublished - Apr 24 2018
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Neuroscience
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


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