Natural odors are typically mixtures of several chemical components. Mixtures vary in composition among odor objects that have the same meaning. Therefore a central ‘categorization’ problem for an animal as it makes decisions about odors in natural contexts is to correctly identify odor variants that have the same meaning and avoid variants that have a different meaning. We propose that identified mechanisms of associative and non-associative plasticity in early sensory processing in the insect antennal lobe and mammalian olfactory bulb are central to solving this problem. Accordingly, this plasticity should work to improve categorization of odors that have the opposite meanings in relation to important events. Using synthetic mixtures designed to mimic natural odor variation among flowers, we studied how honey bees learn about and generalize among floral odors associated with food. We behaviorally conditioned honey bees on a difficult odor discrimination problem using synthetic mixtures that mimic natural variation among snapdragon flowers. We then used calcium imaging to measure responses of projection neurons of the antennal lobe, which is the first synaptic relay of olfactory sensory information in the brain, to study how ensembles of projection neurons change as a result of behavioral conditioning. We show how these ensembles become ‘tuned’ through plasticity to improve categorization of odors that have the different meanings. We argue that this tuning allows more efficient use of the immense coding space of the antennal lobe and olfactory bulb to solve the categorization problem. Our data point to the need for a better understanding of the ‘statistics’ of the odor space.
The authors declare no competing or financial interests.
Conceived and designed the experiments: F.L., P.F., B.H.S. Performed the experiments: F.L., P.F. Analyzed the data: F.L., P.F. Wrote the paper: F.L., P.F., B.H.S.
This work was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health National Center for Research Resources [RR014166], National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders [DC007997] and the National Science Foundation  to B.H.S.
Supplementary information available online at http://jeb.biologists.org/lookup/doi/10.1242/jeb.141465.supplemental
- Received April 5, 2016.
- Accepted June 28, 2016.
- © 2016. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd