Brain processing of a configural vs elemental odor mixture in the newborn rabbit
Organisms are surrounded throughout life by chemically complex odors. How individuals process an odorant within a mixture or a mixture as a whole is a key question in neuroethology and chemical senses. This question is addressed here by using newborn rabbits, which can be rapidly conditioned to a new stimulus by single association with the mammary pheromone. After conditioning to ethyl maltol (odorant B), pups behaviorally respond to B and an A'B' mixture (68/32 ratio) but not to ethyl isobutyrate (odorant A) or an AB mixture (30/70 ratio). This suggests elemental and configural perception of A'B' and AB, respectively. We then explored the neural substrates underlying the processing of these mixtures with the hypothesis that processing varies according to perception. Pups were pseudoconditioned or conditioned to B on postnatal day 3 before exposure to B, A'B' or AB on day 4. Fos expression was not similar between groups (mainly in the olfactory bulb and posterior piriform cortex) suggesting a differential processing of the stimuli that might reflect either stimulus complexity or conditioning effect. Thus, the ratio of components in A'B' vs AB leads to differential activation of the olfactory system which may contribute to elemental and configural percepts of these mixtures. In addition, together with recent behavioral data, this highlights that configural perception occurs even in relatively immature animals, emphasizing the value of the newborn rabbit for exploration of odor mixture processing from molecules to brain and behavior.