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The Neuroscience of Taste by Alfredo Fontanini

Fontanini, Alfredo PECASE 3Alfredo Fontanini, M.D., Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior, and a 2010 PECASE Award winner. His research focuses on the neuroscience of taste, and he studies regions of the brain that are involved in the processing and perception of taste and emotions. Following are some of his observations.

On Taste and the Brain
“Taste is a profoundly psychological sense. This is easy to imagine in the case of a dinner on the waterfront with great wine and company, yet even the simplest of all the stimuli can evoke emotions. And that’s taste uniqueness; while a beep is a beep, or a black dot on white paper is just a dot, neither good nor bad, a single molecule on the tongue is necessarily either good or bad. That’s because the decision to ingest or reject a food is always a decision with major consequences for our survival. Sugar is not just sweet, but it’s sweet and good; and in the same way quinine is not just bitter, it is bitter and disgusting. We need calories and we avoid poisons. This is always the case with taste. Studying taste means to embrace this psychological richness and to accept to sit at a crossroad between sensation and pleasure. Studying taste means more than understanding how the brain senses the world, it means also to understand emotions and pleasure. Our research approaches this problem by using sophisticated techniques to record neurons in sensory and emotional areas of the brain while manipulating the psychological state of the experimental subject to see how moods, memories, and expectations alter gustation.”

On Food and the Brain’s Reaction to Gustatory Stimuli
“No bite of the same food tastes the same twice. We all know that. Mood, emotions, context, hunger, and expectations have a major impact in determining the way we perceive sensory stimuli. Expectation has a particular role in shaping taste perception, as foods are always anticipated by some odors or by their appearance. The study of how expectation affects the way our brain responds to gustatory stimuli is a central component of our research (and the project that was awarded by the PECASE).  We train our animals to press a lever to obtain sugar after an auditory tone and once they learn we look at how neural networks in amygdala (an area responsible for emotions), orbitofrontal cortex, and taste cortex codify expected and surprising tastes. The goal is to understand how much of what we sense is determined by our expectations and how much is due to the actual stimulus.“

On Food’s Connection to Psychological Disorders
“On a more strictly psychopathological level, our research, with its focus on interactions between areas involved in emotions and reward, has potential implications to the understanding of addictions and mood disorders.”

On Processed and “Fast” Food
“Mac and cheese, chicken fingers, a hot dog with ketchup and fries; the infamous “kids meal.” For millions of American children this is not just a once‐in‐a‐while restaurant indulgence; it is the tip of the iceberg of a culinary education (or rather mis-education) based on excess: too much sugar, too much salt, and too much fat. Exposed to such a diet during development, children grow to become salt‐, fat‐, and sugar‐loving adults. Our gustatory brain is highly plastic; our sense of liking and disliking is shaped by early experiences. Knowing how our food preferences depend on childhood diet will raise the awareness on the importance of a proper culinary education at early ages. This is particularly crucial in a country, like ours, that lacks of a strong and old culinary tradition and that is trying to build from the ground up a new culture of food. This knowledge will also allow us to manipulate preferences in order to minimize aversions for healthy foods (broccoli IS good) and reduce addictions for sugar, salt, and fats.”

On Molecular Gastronomy
“This is the name of one of the latest trends in creative cuisine: the application of science, chemistry, and physics in particular, to the art of preparing food.  We propose to extend this marriage between science and cuisine by focusing not only on preparation techniques but also on the perceptual side of eating and drinking. Not only molecular gastronomy, then, but also neurogastronomy: a new discipline in which the art of food is combined with the knowledge of the perceptual processes that make a dinner a rich and memorable experience.“

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