Experience and the integration of sensory information work hand in hand to modify behavior and play an essential role in animal survival. Taste, in particular, represents a uniquely high-risk sensory input, as gustation is the only sense that requires ingestion in order for processing to take place. Given that taste experiences play an important role in survival, wellbeing, and quality of life, it is imperative for behavioral neuroscientists to understand how taste experiences alter future dietary decisions. In order to attain this goal, we must better understand how learning impacts taste processing as well as what regions in cortex make these behavioral adaptations possible. Malfunctions in this system result in appetitive disorders, including over and under consumption, which often increase the risk of obesity, depression, and diabetes. My previous research has shown for the first time that experience with salty and sour tastes increases aversion learning to a novel taste (Flores et al March 2016). This project aims at developing and understanding for how the gustatory cortex and basolateral amygdala process and represent these changes. By examining immediate early gene activity within the nucleus of neurons, I will be able to determine what role these regions play during taste processing experiences. Neural activity in these regions at critical time points of taste experience learning will be compared between rats who have had previous experiences with tastes and rats having experienced water only. Additionally, regions found to show increased levels of neural activity will undergo temporary optogenetic silencing during experience learning to understand how lack of this cellular input alters behavioral changes observed with taste experience learning. This new and innovative technique will deactivate neurons using a specific wavelength of light to help decipher the functional relevance of these regions. The results of these experiments will provide robust phenomenological evidence towards the role of these brain regions in innocuous taste experience learning as well as how these brain areas integrate experience into later perception. Research in this area is limited, thus an understanding of this phenomenon will advance our current understanding of taste processing on a level that is more generalizable to the widely diverse human taste experience.

Public Health Relevance

This proposed project will investigate how experience influences future taste processing in a rodent model of taste learning. By using tools that allow the identification and manipulation of active neurons this work aims to shed light onto which areas of the brain process taste experience and how this processing translates to behavior. Understanding how food and taste experiences alter future taste decisions is critical, as this will allow scientists to understand the underlying behavioral and neural components of appetite and appetitive disorders, such as overconsumption, which can which can lead to a wide array of serious health conditions.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)
Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (F31)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZDC1)
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Rivera-Rentas, Alberto L
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Brandeis University
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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Flores, Veronica L; Parmet, Tamar; Mukherjee, Narendra et al. (2018) The role of the gustatory cortex in incidental experience-evoked enhancement of later taste learning. Learn Mem 25:587-600