Every moment of every day the brain is forced to process thousands of separate odorants from the world around us.
Through a new study of honeybees, scientists at UQ's Queensland Brain Institute have discovered the brain has an advanced ability to isolate specific odours and recollect smells.
"There's a lot of information coming into the brain whenever a scent is detected and it would be difficult to process it all," lead researcher Dr Judith Reinhard said.
"We've found that honeybees pick only a handful of so-called 'key odorants' out of every complex aroma that they really learn. They may remember just two or three odorants from a couple of hundred, the rest are ignored."
Colleague Dr Charles Claudianos said if you had to learn the hundreds of compounds your brain would be overwhelmed with information.
"By choosing the key odorants, you can function more effectively without being swamped," Dr Charles Claudianos said.
The research, published in the latest edition of PLoS ONE, has also allowed the scientists to explore how the learning of odours affects molecules that have been linked to autism and schizophrenia. During their studies, the researchers found that the honeybee brain responds to sensory experience.
"The honeybee brain -- like the human brain -- adapts to its sensory environment by adjusting the expression of these molecules," Dr Claudianos said.
Dr Reinhard said the findings could also have an enormous impact on Australian farming. Using the honeybee's capacity to extract key odorants, scientists will be able to isolate these odorants from the complex aromas of crops. They can then use the key odorants to train honeybees to pollinate specific crops.
"Farmers often have problems making honeybees focus on the crop -- the bees go astray and go to nearby forests or national parks and the farmers don't get a good yield," Dr Reinhard said.
"If we know the key odorants of the almond aroma, for example, we could use these to train the honeybees in the hive to focus only on pollinating almonds. Then you'd have a much higher likelihood the honeybees would stay in the crop and pollinate it."
Now the focus for the QBI scientists will be whether humans use the same technique of learning specific key odorants so our brain is not overwhelmed by too much sensory information -- early research suggests we do.
- Reinhard et al. Honeybees Learn Odour Mixtures via a Selection of Key Odorants. PLoS ONE, 2010; 5 (2): e9110 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009110
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