Single-unit recording of layer II—III cells in olfactory (piriform) cortex was performed on awake, unrestrained rats actively engaged in learning novel odors in an olfactory discrimination task. Five of the 67 cells tested had very brief monophasic action potentials and high spontaneous firing rates (30–80 Hz); it is suggested that these units were interneurons. The remainder of the neurons had broader spikes and did not discharge for prolonged periods. Thirty-nine percent of the broad spike cells responded to at least one and usually more of the odors presented to the rats during either of the first two trials on which that odor was present, but, in most cases, these responses occurred only very infrequently over the course of subsequent trials. Six percent of the broad-spike group, how ever, continued firing robustly to a single odor but not to others.
From these results it appears that most cells in piriform cortex do not respond to most odors, i.e., coding is exceedingly sparse. A subgroup of the predominant broad-spike cell type does react to several odors but this response drops out with repeated exposure, perhaps because of training. However, a few members of this class (a small fraction of the total cell population) do go on responding to a particular odor, thus exhibiting a form of odor specificity. The results are discussed with regard to predictions from recently developed models of the olfactory cortex.