Integrative Analysis of Olfaction

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DFG Schwerpunktprogramm (SPP) 1392: Integrative Analysis of Olfaction

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The Senate of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) has announced the establishment of a new Schwerpunktprogramm entitled “Integrative Analysis of Olfaction”. The programme runs for an initial period of three years, extendable to six years. It has started in Summer, 2009.

The olfactory system is characterized by a fast link from stimulus to behavioral response. For example, in humans, an odor can elicit a vivid and immediate recall of old memories. Similarly, many examples are known in animals where an olfactory stimulus leads directly to a behavior, be it an innate response, or the result of previous experience. This short pathway motivates us to use olfaction as a paradigm to understand the complete sensorimotor pathway from stimulus to behavior, one of the main goals in neuroscience as a whole. While transduction mechanisms of olfactory receptor cells are increasingly known, the olfactory sense as a whole is still the least understood of all senses. This is presumably due to its intrinsic complexity: hundreds of different olfactory receptors interact with odorants in the environment, and their activity is processed in highly structured brain areas, first the olfactory bulb and then the olfactory cortex (or their counterparts in other species). Several crucial issues remain to be tackled: How do complex interactions at the periphery shape odor responses? How does a particular combination of volatile substances transform into a characteristic spatio-temporal pattern of activity, and how does this pattern lead to a perception that elicits a given behavior? How is this olfactory percept instantiated, how and where are olfactory memories stored? What are the mechanisms by which olfactory stimuli modulate emotions and behavior? These are important questions that the neuroscience community has to solve in the olfactory field in the next few years, and this is the challenge that this Schwerpunkt intends to face.

The purpose of our program is to achieve a comprehensive understanding of olfactory coding through the analysis of olfactory systems at all levels of olfactory processing: 1) signaling and coding, 2) information processing, 3) sensory and behavioral performance, and 4) perception and cognition.

The Schwerpunktprogramm "Integrative analysis of Olfaction" is an interdisciplinary project, that includes 16 collaborative scientific groups submitted by teams of at least two principal investigators with different disciplinary background. Scientists trained in the Schwerpunkt gain a broad, interdisciplinary background that makes them capable to find employment in many areas.