Each year, the Association for Chemoreception Sciences (AChemS) presents the Young Investigator Award for Research in Olfaction to an outstanding junior faculty researcher who is an emerging leader in the field of olfaction. In April 2017, that award was given to Max Fletcher, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at UTHSC. Dr. Fletcher has been with UTHSC since 2010 where he focuses on understanding the basic principles of neural encoding of sensory information and how both experience and learning can affect this process. Dr. Fletcher explains, “specifically, I am working to understand how does experience or expectation change and/or alter perception.”
Upon detecting a smell, the olfactory neurons in the upper part of the nose create an impulse which is passed to the brain along the olfactory nerve. This information is transmitted to the olfactory bulb first, which processes the signal and then passes information about the smell to other areas closely connected to it, including parts of the limbic system. Odor-evoked memories are attained quickly, are long-lasting, and are apparent in olfactory bulb glomeruli, the initial sites of odor processing in the brain. Dr. Fletcher aims to understand the neural mechanisms underlying learning and subsequent behavioral expression using an olfactory fear conditioning paradigm.
“We’re trying to understand how the brain encodes sensory information using sense of smell in mice,” said Dr. Fletcher. “Using primarily fear learning techniques, we are particularly interested in understanding how does experience change your perception and how does this information change in your brain. We want to also understand how your brain decides if similar stimuli should be feared or not feared through olfactory associative learning and discrimination.”
Utilizing optical imaging methods combined with transgenic mouse lines expressing genetically encoded indicators of neuronal activity, Dr. Fletcher is able to measure a mouse’s brain activity. He states that this method “allows us to see changes in activity that occur once the odor has meaning to the mouse,” whether positive or negative.
“The pattern represents odor information at a basic sensory level,” said Dr. Fletcher. “However, the way your brain processes that information may differ depending on what state you are in. We want to understand this process and the mechanisms behind potential changes that occur.”
AChemS Young Investigator Award for Research in Olfaction awardees are nominated by other AChemS members. To be eligible for the award the nominee’s researcher record should provide evidence of excellence and contributions that have had or are likely to have a major impact on research in the field of olfaction. The award, worth $2,000, is given during the AChemS Annual Meeting. Additionally, nominees must be an AChemS member in good standing and have received their doctoral degrees 15 or fewer years prior to the year of the granting of the award.