Robust encoding of stimulus identity and concentration in the accessory olfactory system

Hannah A. Arnson, Timothy E. Holy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Sensory systems represent stimulus identity and intensity, but in the neural periphery these two variables are typically intertwined. Moreover, stable detection may be complicated by environmental uncertainty; stimulus properties can differ overtime and circumstance in ways that are not necessarily biologically relevant. We explored these issues in the context of the mouse accessory olfactory system, which specializes in detection of chemical social cues and infers myriad aspects of the identity and physiological state of conspecifics from complex mixtures, such as urine. Using mixtures of sulfated steroids, key constituents of urine, we found that spiking responses of individual vomeronasal sensory neurons encode both individual compounds and mixtures in a manner consistent with a simple model of receptor-ligand interactions. Although typical neurons did not accurately encode concentration over a large dynamic range, from population activity it was possible to reliably estimate the log-concentration of pure compounds over several orders of magnitude. For binary mixtures, simple models failed to accurately segment the individual components, largely because of the prevalence of neurons responsive to both components. By accounting for such overlaps during model tuning, we show that, from neuronal firing, one can accurately estimate log-concentration of both components, even when tested across widely varying concentrations. With this foundation, A the difference of logarithms, log A - log B = log A/B, provides a natural mechanism to accurately estimate concentration ratios. Thus, we show that a biophysically plausible circuit model can reconstruct concentration ratios from observed neuronal firing, representing a powerful mechanism to separate stimulus identity from absolute concentration.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)13388-13397
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number33
StatePublished - 2013


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