Theses Doctoral

Neural circuits mediating innate and learned behavior

Gore, Felicity May

For many organisms the sense of smell is critical to survival. Some olfactory stimuli elicit innate responses that are mediated through hardwired circuits that have developed over long periods of evolutionary time. Most olfactory stimuli, however, have no inherent meaning. Instead, meaning must be imposed by learning during the lifetime of an organism. Despite the dominance of olfactory stimuli on animal behavior, the mechanisms by which odorants elicit learned behavioral responses remain poorly understood.
All odor-evoked behaviors are initiated by the binding of an odorant to olfactory
receptors located on sensory neurons in the nasal epithelium. Olfactory sensory neurons transmit this information to the olfactory bulb via spatially organized axonal projections such that individual odorants evoke a stereotyped map of bulbar activity. A subset of bulbar neurons, the mitral and tufted cells, relay olfactory information to higher brain structures that have been implicated in the generation of innate and learned behavioral responses, including the cortical amygdala and piriform cortex.
Anatomical studies have demonstrated that the spatial stereotypy of the olfactory
bulb is maintained in projections to the posterolateral cortical amygdala, a structure that is involved in the generation of innate odor-evoked responses. The projections of mitral and tufted cells to piriform cortex however appear to discard the spatial order of the olfactory bulb: each glomerulus sends spatially diffuse, apparently random projections across the entire cortex. This anatomy appears to constrain odor-evoked responses in piriform cortex: electrophysiological and imaging studies demonstrate that individual odorants activate sparse ensembles that are distributed across the extent of cortex, and individual piriform neurons exhibit discontinuous receptive fields such that they respond to structurally and perceptually similar and dissimilar odorants. It is therefore unlikely that olfactory representations in piriform have inherent meaning. Instead, these representations have been proposed to mediate olfactory learning. In accord with this, lesions of posterior piriform cortex prevent the expression of a previously acquired olfactory fear memory and photoactivation of a random ensemble of piriform neurons can become entrained to both appetitive and aversive outcomes. Piriform cortex therefore plays a central role in olfactory fear learning. However, how meaning is imparted on olfactory representations in piriform remains largely unknown.
We developed a strategy to manipulate the neural activity of representations of
conditioned and unconditioned stimuli in the basolateral amygdala (BLA), a downstream target of piriform cortex that has been implicated in the generation of learned responses. This strategy allowed us to demonstrate that distinct neural ensembles represent an appetitive and an aversive unconditioned stimulus (US) in the BLA. Moreover, the activity of these representations can elicit innate responses as well as direct Pavlovian and instrumental learning. Finally activity of an aversive US representation in the basolateral amygdala is required for learned olfactory and auditory fear responses. These data suggest that both olfactory and auditory stimuli converge on US representations in the BLA to generate learned behavioral responses. Having identified a US representation in the BLA that receives convergent olfactory information to generate learned fear responses, we were then able to step back into the olfactory system and demonstrate that the BLA receives olfactory input via the monosynaptic projection from piriform cortex. These data suggest that aversive meaning is imparted on an olfactory representation in piriform cortex via reinforcement of its projections onto a US representation in the BLA.
The work described in this thesis has identified mechanisms by which sensory stimuli generate appropriate behavioral responses. Manipulations of representations of unconditioned stimuli have identified a central role for US representations in the BLA in connecting sensory stimuli to both innate and learned behavioral responses. In addition, these experiments have suggested local mechanisms by which fear learning might be implemented in the BLA. Finally, we have identified a fundamental transformation through which a disordered olfactory representation in piriform cortex acquires meaning. Strikingly this transformation appears to occur within 3 synapses of the periphery. These data, and the techniques we employ, therefore have the potential to significantly impact upon our understanding of the neural origins of motivated behavior.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Neurobiology and Behavior
Thesis Advisors
Axel, Richard
Salzman, C. Daniel
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
December 10, 2015