Animals are experts at following their noses and using odors to detect everything from food to mates to potential predators. Now, an interdisciplinary research team led by a University of Colorado Boulder professor has won a major funding award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to uncover the behavioral and neurological processes that govern the deeply embedded science of smell.
The $6.4 million NSF grant, awarded as part of the White House’s BRAIN Initiative, will allow the researchers to quantify the structure of odor plumes using 3D laser-based technologies, and then measure both an animal’s behavioral responses and its real-time brain activity as it navigates through an odor environment.
“Animals make efficient use of the information embedded in odor plumes and react to different spatial and temporal odor patterns in different ways because their lives depend on it,” said John Crimaldi, a professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at CU-Boulder and a co-investigator on the project. “Currently, we know very little about how the brain makes these decisions, and that’s the central question that this project will address.”
Olfaction is the least understood of the five major senses, Crimaldi said, adding that humans must still rely primarily on animals to perform odor localization tasks—bomb-sniffing dogs, for example. Better knowledge of animal olfactory processes could have wide-ranging implications for future engineering solutions, such as robots that can navigate through odor plumes to sniff out the location of chemical weapons, pathogens and other contaminants.
“We want to understand which spatial patterns animals are using to complete scent-based tasks, look for the neurons that perform those computations, and then link the two,” said Nathan Urban, a professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and a co-investigator on the project.
The researchers plan to study how animals of various sizes and speeds react to different scent patterns by creating a set of “odor landscape generators,” akin to specialized wind tunnels, that will mimic the flow and odor patterns found in an animal’s natural environment. The findings from those trials will be used to develop numerical models of navigational strategies used by animals to locate odor sources.
The researchers will also develop a virtual reality simulator capable of creating dynamic olfactory environments to be used while the researchers simultaneously map real-time neuron activity in the animal’s brain. This will allow researchers to develop neural network models and answer questions about how the brain uses olfactory information to make navigational decisions.
Additional researchers collaborating on the project include Lucia Jacobs of the University of California Berkeley; Jonathan Victor of Weill Cornell Medical College; Bard Ermentrout of the University of Pittsburgh; Katherine Nagel of New York University Medical Center; and Justus Verhagen of John Pierce Laboratory.