Effects of Odorant-environment Complexity on Behavioral and Neural Plasticity at Different Time Scales
The ability to detect and appropriately respond to chemical stimuli is important for many organisms, ranging from bacteria to multicellular animals. Responses to these stimuli can be plastic over multiple time scales. In the short-term, the synaptic strengths of neurons embedded in neural circuits can be modified and result in various forms of learning. In the long-term, the overall developmental trajectory of the olfactory network can be altered and synaptic strengths can be modified on a broad scale as a direct result of long-term (chronic) stimulus experience. Over evolutionary time the olfactory system can impose selection pressures that affect the odorants used in communication networks. On short time scales, I measured the effects of repeated alarm pheromone exposure on the colony-level defense behaviors in a social bee. I found that the responses to the alarm pheromone were plastic. This suggests that there may be mechanisms that affect individual plasticity to pheromones and regulate how these individuals act in groups to coordinate nest defense. On longer time scales, I measured the behavioral and neural affects of bees given a single chronic odor experience versus bees that had a natural, more diverse olfactory experience. The central brains of bees with a deprived odor experience responded more similarly to odorants in imaging studies, and did not develop a fully mature olfactory network. Additionally, these immature networks showed behavioral deficits when recalling odor mixture components. Over evolutionary time, signals need to engage the attention of and be easily recognized by bees. I measured responses of bees to a floral mixture and its constituent monomolecular components. I found that natural floral mixtures engage the orientation of bees’ antennae more strongly than single-component odorants and also provide more consistent central brain responses between stimulations. Together, these studies highlight the importance of olfactory experience on different scales and how the nervous system might impose pressures to select the stimuli used as signals in communication networks.