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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Emerging Science Note/Taste Test

Air Date: Week of

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have tested the brain's ability to lessen the experience of a foul taste by anticipating one that is good. Emily Taylor reports.



TAYLOR: Remember your first curse word? You thought your mom was gonna wash out your mouth with soap, didn’t you? So you closed your eyes and prepared for the worst. Well, maybe you didn’t.

A recent study from scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that the human brain can have a response that is based on the perception of taste, regardless of whether the taste buds actually experience the sensation.

After enlisting 43 students to undergo MRI brain imaging, assistant professor Jack B. Nitschke tested the ability of their brains to reduce the experience of a foul taste by tricking itself through the anticipation of a less foul taste. He conditioned the students before they entered the MRI session to associate a specific cue with a taste, and monitored their brain activity as cues flashed and liquid was dropped into their mouths.

But Nitschke didn’t always match the cues with the tastes the subjects were anticipating. So, when some students saw a cue for a less bitter taste, less bitter is what they perceived even if the actual taste was bitter.

Nitschke was able to ultimately conclude that the brain acts differently when it anticipates a sensation as compared to when it experiences a sensation unexpectedly. Sensory input could be largely based on perceptions of, say, fear or joy, rather than on reality. Nitschke hopes to use these anticipatory processes in the brain to help people dealing with anxiety and depression.

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Emily Taylor.



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