LA JOLLA, CA - September 22, 2015 - The brain can process a seemingly unlimited number of odors, yet most research in animal models has focused on just 10 "sample" odor molecules to track neurological activity from the nose into the brain.
Now the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded more than $1.5 million to Lisa Stowers, associate professor at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), to support research using 1,000 odor molecules.
"We've been limited by the odors commonly used in research," said Stowers. "Understanding how the brain processes these odors will provide a good model for understanding how the brain accomplishes even more complex tasks, such as cognition."
The new three-year study is part of a nationwide effort supported by the NSF to better understand how odors influence behavior and how the brain processes many kinds of environmental cues.
Stowers will work closely with lab heads at Duke University; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Utah; Rockefeller University; and Pennsylvania State University.
"The team aspect is going to be critical," Stowers said. "It's a really diverse group, where each lab has its unique strengths."
Stowers' lab will bring expertise in neurological function and behavioral analysis. Her lab's past research has revealed how olfactory cues control mouse behaviors, shedding light on the evolution of the mammalian brain.
In 2012, Stowers and her colleagues discovered that a mix of chemicals from mother mice triggers the basic mammalian instinct in their young to nurse or suckle. And in 2014, her lab showed that pheromones in mouse urine contain complex chemical cues about mouse hierarchy, controlling whether dominant or subordinate male mice mark their territory.
These kinds of studies in mouse models are a window into human behavior as well, Stowers explained. "The olfactory system in mammals is ancient and conserved across species. Humans are using the same general principles."
The award is NSF grant number 1556085.