Friday, August 29, 2008

Do our noses sniff danger in the air?

The Grueneberg ganglion is a recently discovered ball of olfactory nerve cells found at the tip of the noses of mammals, including us. It turns out that, in mice, it is responsible for detecting alarm pheromones of the sort that are secreted by both plants and animals to warn conspecifics of a threatening situation. (There is speculation about human pheromones as an factor in emotional state before death). Chang points to some definitive work in mice from Brechb├╝hl et al. Here is their abstract:
Alarm pheromones (APs) are widely used throughout the plant and animal kingdoms. Species such as fish, insects, and mammals signal danger to conspecifics by releasing volatile alarm molecules. Thus far, neither the chemicals, their bodily source, nor the sensory system involved in their detection have been isolated or identified in mammals. We found that APs are recognized by the Grueneberg ganglion (GG), a recently discovered olfactory subsystem. We showed with electron microscopy that GG neurons bear primary cilia, with cell bodies ensheathed by glial cells. APs evoked calcium responses in GG neurons in vitro and induced freezing behavior in vivo, which completely disappeared when the GG degenerated after axotomy. We conclude that mice detect APs through the activation of olfactory GG neurons.

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