Researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus have revealed that smells trigger certain brain cells, which may play a role in making quick ‘go, no-go’ decisions. The research was published in the journal Current Biology. The scientists focused on the hippocampus, an area of the brain important for memory and learning. They knew that so-called ‘time cells’ play a major role in hippocampal function but did not know their role in associative learning.
“These are the cells that remind you to make a decision — do this or do that,” said study senior author Diego Restrepo, PhD, a neuroscientist and professor of cell and developmental biology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. The researchers observed that when rats were given the choice to respond to the smell of fruit by licking a sac that provided sweet water, they quickly learned to lick the smell of fruit as opposed to the smell of mineral oil. “They learn to make decisions by having to associate the smell with the outcome of what they’re doing,” said Ming Ma, PhD, first author of the study and a senior instructor in the CU School of Cell and Developmental Biology. medicine. “When it’s a fruit smell, they lick and get a reward. When it’s mineral oil they stop licking.”
“The more they learned, the more stimulated the cells were, resulting in faster decoding of odors and the mice becoming more proficient at choosing fruit odors,” said Fabio Simos de Souza, D.S.C., another first author of the study and director of cells at the CU School of Medicine. An Assistant Research Professor of Developmental Biology.
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The catalyst for decision-making is smell which travels up the nose to the olfactory bulb and sends neural signals to the hippocampus. The two organs are closely connected. Information is processed quickly and the brain makes a decision based on the input. “Before, we didn’t know that there were decision-making cells in the hippocampus,” Restrepo said. “Hippocampus Multitasking.” Cells don’t always turn on, Restrepo hypothesized, because otherwise the stimulus might become overwhelming.
The study expands current knowledge about what’s involved in decision-making in the brain, especially those quick-moving, no-nonsense decisions that mice and humans make all the time. “The hippocampus turns on cells during decision-making that will give you an indication of what to remember,” Restrepo says. “In the past, time cells were thought to only remember events and times. Here we see memory encoded in neurons and then instantly retrieved when making a decision.”