, Volume 199, Issue 11, pp 981-996,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 23 Apr 2013

Parallel processing in the honeybee olfactory pathway: structure, function, and evolution


Animals face highly complex and dynamic olfactory stimuli in their natural environments, which require fast and reliable olfactory processing. Parallel processing is a common principle of sensory systems supporting this task, for example in visual and auditory systems, but its role in olfaction remained unclear. Studies in the honeybee focused on a dual olfactory pathway. Two sets of projection neurons connect glomeruli in two antennal-lobe hemilobes via lateral and medial tracts in opposite sequence with the mushroom bodies and lateral horn. Comparative studies suggest that this dual-tract circuit represents a unique adaptation in Hymenoptera. Imaging studies indicate that glomeruli in both hemilobes receive redundant sensory input. Recent simultaneous multi-unit recordings from projection neurons of both tracts revealed widely overlapping response profiles strongly indicating parallel olfactory processing. Whereas lateral-tract neurons respond fast with broad (generalistic) profiles, medial-tract neurons are odorant specific and respond slower. In analogy to “what-” and “where” subsystems in visual pathways, this suggests two parallel olfactory subsystems providing “what-” (quality) and “when” (temporal) information. Temporal response properties may support across-tract coincidence coding in higher centers. Parallel olfactory processing likely enhances perception of complex odorant mixtures to decode the diverse and dynamic olfactory world of a social insect.