Neural substrate for higher-order learning in an insect: Mushroom bodies are necessary for configural discriminations

Jean Marc Devaud, Thomas Papouin, Julie Carcaud, Jean Christophe Sandoz, Bernd Grönewald, Martin Giurfa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Scopus citations


Learning theories distinguish elemental from configural learning based on their different complexity. Although the former relies on simple and unambiguous links between the learned events, the latter deals with ambiguous discriminations in which conjunctive representations of events are learned as being different from their elements. In mammals, configural learning is mediated by brain areas that are either dispensable or partially involved in elemental learning. We studied whether the insect brain follows the same principles and addressed this question in the honey bee, the only insect in which configural learning has been demonstrated. We used a combination of conditioning protocols, disruption of neural activity, and optophysiological recording of olfactory circuits in the bee brain to determine whether mushroom bodies (MBs), brain structures that are essential for memory storage and retrieval, are equally necessary for configural and elemental olfactory learning. We show that bees with anesthetized MBs distinguish odors and learn elemental olfactory discriminations but not configural ones, such as positive and negative patterning. Inhibition of GABAergic signaling in the MB calyces, but not in the lobes, impairs patterning discrimination, thus suggesting a requirement of GABAergic feedback neurons from the lobes to the calyces for nonelemental learning. These results uncover a previously unidentified role for MBs besides memory storage and retrieval: namely, their implication in the acquisition of ambiguous discrimination problems. Thus, in insects as in mammals, specific brain regions are recruited when the ambiguity of learning tasks increases, a fact that reveals similarities in the neural processes underlying the elucidation of ambiguous tasks across species.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E5854-E5862
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number43
StatePublished - Oct 27 2015


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