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Aversive Learning Enhances Perceptual and Cortical Discrimination of Indiscriminable Odor Cues

Science  28 Mar 2008:
Vol. 319, Issue 5871, pp. 1842-1845
DOI: 10.1126/science.1152837

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Abstract

Learning to associate sensory cues with threats is critical for minimizing aversive experience. The ecological benefit of associative learning relies on accurate perception of predictive cues, but how aversive learning enhances perceptual acuity of sensory signals, particularly in humans, is unclear. We combined multivariate functional magnetic resonance imaging with olfactory psychophysics to show that initially indistinguishable odor enantiomers (mirror-image molecules) become discriminable after aversive conditioning, paralleling the spatial divergence of ensemble activity patterns in primary olfactory (piriform) cortex. Our findings indicate that aversive learning induces piriform plasticity with corresponding gains in odor enantiomer discrimination, underscoring the capacity of fear conditioning to update perceptual representation of predictive cues, over and above its well-recognized role in the acquisition of conditioned responses. That completely indiscriminable sensations can be transformed into discriminable percepts further accentuates the potency of associative learning to enhance sensory cue perception and support adaptive behavior.

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