Navigator Neurons Play Critical Role in Sense of Smell

A newly discovered group of “navigator” neurons may hold the key to understanding the neural circuitry behind our sense of smell. The study builds on a breakthrough 2014 report from the Yu Lab that showed a critical period in olfactory wiring. Glitches in the wiring affect how scents are perceived. Yu and his colleagues found that in mice, there’s a brief window to fix problems—about a week after mice are born.

In their follow-up report, the researchers detail the surprise discovery of a group of olfactory sensory neurons, or “navigator” neurons, that play an essential role in establishing the olfactory map, a kind of code book for the scents we encounter. The navigator neurons also correct faulty wiring that can impair the sense of smell. Because navigator neurons look identical and function the same as other neurons, the Stowers researchers creatively employed a variety of approaches and technologies, some they developed themselves, to finally pinpoint them. Learning more about navigator neurons could hold promise for regenerating and repairing olfactory neurons and neurons in other types of neural systems, such as those involved in spinal cord injury.

This report appeared online October 25, 2018, in Neuron.