A research team from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) found that the process of "olfactory information" is similar in humans and insects.
By using the brain of a cotton bollworm as a model, the branching patterns and coding mechanisms the researchers detected in the small model brain seem to be relevant not only for insects, but also for mammals—which include people. The findings were published in the journal eLife on October 10.
"We find striking similarities in the structure and function of the olfactory system across different organisms. The similarities are probably related to the fact that the olfactory system is evolutionarily the oldest of all sensory systems," said Xi Chu, a researcher in Chemosensory Laboratory at NTNU and senior author on the study.
The researchers studied second-order olfactory neurons in male cotton bollworms. The males carry signals from the primary olfactory center to other areas of the brain, where the signals are further interpreted to provide the correct responses. They're strangely similar to neurons, called mitral cells, in humans and other mammals.
"When we smell something, it's because certain molecules that are dispersed in the air first activate sensory neurons in the olfactory epithelium. This is an area in the nose that captures odor molecules and carries them further into the brain's primary olfactory center. Here, the sensory terminals form a kind of map, so neurons that have the same type of olfactory receptor accumulate within spherical structures called glomeruli," Chu explained.
"Insects have a similar system of sensory olfactory neurons that form glomeruli in their antennal lobes. The similarity also applies to second-order olfactory neurons that send signals from the primary olfactory center to higher-order areas," he added.
The various odors are represented in the form of a collection of non-overlapping glomeruli in the primary olfactory center. But they are arranged in a quite different way in the subsequent second-order centers. In both insects and humans, the terminals of second-order olfactory neurons cover relatively large areas that partly overlap, he explained.