Olfactory memory networks: from emotional learning to social behaviors
Donald A. Wilson
Regina M. Sullivan
Odors are powerful stimuli that can evoke emotional states, and support learning and memory. Decades of research have indicated that the neural basis for this strong "odor-emotional memory" connection is due to the uniqueness of the anatomy of the olfactory pathways. Indeed, unlike the other sensory systems, the sense of smell does not pass through the thalamus to be routed to the cortex. Rather, odor information is relayed directly to the limbic system, a brain region typically associated with memory and emotional processes. This provides olfaction with a unique and potent power to influence mood, acquisition of new information, and use of information in many different contexts including social interactions. Indeed, olfaction is crucially involved in behaviors essential for survival of the individual and species, including identification of predators, recognition of individuals for procreation or social hierarchy, location of food, as well as attachment between mating pairs and infant-caretaker dyads. Importantly, odors are sampled through sniffing behavior. This active sensing plays an important role in exploratory behaviors observed in the different contexts mentioned above. Odors are also critical for learning and memory about events and places and constitute efficient retrieval cues for the recall of emotional episodic memories. This broad role for odors appears highly preserved across species. In addition, the consistent early developmental emergence of olfactory function across diverse species also provides a unique window of opportunity for analysis of myriad behavioral systems from rodents to nonhuman primates and humans. This, when combined with the relatively conserved organization of the olfactory system in mammals, provides a powerful framework to explore how complex behaviors can be modulated by odors to produce adaptive responses, and to investigate the underlying neural networks. The present research topic brings together cutting edge research on diverse species and developmental stages, highlighting convergence and divergence between humans and animals to facilitate translational research.