Olfactory systems encode odours by which neurons respond and by when they respond. In mammals, every sniff evokes a precise, odour-specific sequence of activity across olfactory neurons. Likewise, in a variety of neural systems, ranging from sensory periphery to cognitive centres, neuronal activity is timed relative to sampling behaviour and/or internally generated oscillations. As in these neural systems, relative timing of activity may represent information in the olfactory system. However, there is no evidence that mammalian olfactory systems read such cues. To test whether mice perceive the timing of olfactory activation relative to the sniff cycle ('sniff phase'), we used optogenetics in gene-targeted mice to generate spatially constant, temporally controllable olfactory input. Here we show that mice can behaviourally report the sniff phase of optogenetically driven activation of olfactory sensory neurons. Furthermore, mice can discriminate between light-evoked inputs that are shifted in the sniff cycle by as little as 10 milliseconds, which is similar to the temporal precision of olfactory bulb odour responses. Electrophysiological recordings in the olfactory bulb of awake mice show that individual cells encode the timing of photoactivation in relation to the sniff in both the timing and the amplitude of their responses. Our work provides evidence that the mammalian olfactory system can read temporal patterns, and suggests that timing of activity relative to sampling behaviour is a potent cue that may enable accurate olfactory percepts to form quickly.
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