It is well established that there are individual differences in taste intensity perception resulting from genetic variation in taste receptors or other peripheral taste physiology [1-8]. Much less explored is the possibility for other sources of variability. Guided by new evidence from the prior project period which indicates that the gustatory system is an integrated oral sensory system that exhibits both transient and long-term plasticity, the proposed work will combine psychophysics and neuroimaging methods in humans to investigate central as well as peripheral neural mechanisms that influence taste sensitivity.
In aim 1 we will test the hypothesis that a central gain mechanism plays a significant role in individual differences in taste perception in humans. Whereas peripheral explanations of variance in sensitivity are often specific to a particular quality or chemical, we propose to develop and validate a neurobiological model of brain circuitry that determines overall taste system sensitivity.
In aim 2 we will investigate whether prolonged directed attention to oral but not extra-oral sensations increases taste and flavor sensitivity via modulation of the anterior insula or the proposed central gain mechanism. In the first period of this project we identified a higher-order cortical network that modulates processing in gustatory cortex in the service of goal directed behaviors [9-12]. New pilot data suggests that engaging in a psychophysical task that demands prolonged attention may modulate this mechanism. We will test this hypothesis by comparing changes in taste intensity and the blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) responses in gustatory circuits before and after tasks requiring directed attention to flavors vs. visual stimuli.
In aim 3 we investigate the possibility of a dietary influence on gustatory sensitivity. Significant controversy surrounds the possibility that consumption of artificial sweeteners (AFS) leads to weight gain. Some studies have found correlations between AFS use and weight gain and/or diabetes [13-16] while others have indicated that AFSs may aid in weight loss [17] or have no effects on body mass index (BMI) [18]. Given that the five FDA approved AFSs are found in thousands of foods [19] this marks a clear and significant gap in knowledge. Our preliminary data demonstrate a 3-fold decrease in sweet taste sensitivity following consumption of a beverage sweetened with two packets of Splenda for just 10 days. These data provide strong evidence that repeated exposure to sucralose reduces perception of sweet taste intensity, most likely by down regulation of the sweet taste receptor. Overall, identifying central mechanisms of taste modulation related to gain modulation and directed attention, as well as a possible peripheral mechanism triggered by consumption of an AFS, the proposed work will advance understanding of sources of individual differences in taste that are relevant to food choice and consumption.

Public Health Relevance

The proposed work will investigate factors influencing taste sensitivity. We aim to provide novel information about taste perception by identifying individual, environmental and cognitive mechanisms that underlie variations in taste sensitivity. In addition to advancing knowledge about central taste processing we will investigate a heretofore unrecognized but potentially critical link between artificial sweetener use and decreases in sweet taste perception that could lead to increased caloric intake by shifting sweet concentration preferences to promote obesity.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)
Research Project (R01)
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Somatosensory and Chemosensory Systems Study Section (SCS)
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Sullivan, Susan L
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John B. Pierce Laboratory, Inc.
New Haven
United States
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Veldhuizen, Maria Geraldine; Babbs, Richard Keith; Patel, Barkha et al. (2017) Integration of Sweet Taste and Metabolism Determines Carbohydrate Reward. Curr Biol 27:2476-2485.e6
Burke, Mary V; Small, Dana M (2015) Physiological mechanisms by which non-nutritive sweeteners may impact body weight and metabolism. Physiol Behav 152:381-8
Rudenga, Kristin J; Small, Dana M (2013) Ventromedial prefrontal cortex response to concentrated sucrose reflects liking rather than sweet quality coding. Chem Senses 38:585-94
de Araujo, Ivan E; Geha, Paul; Small, Dana M (2012) Orosensory and Homeostatic Functions of the Insular Taste Cortex. Chemosens Percept 5:64-79
Veldhuizen, Maria G; Gitelman, Darren R; Small, Dana M (2012) An fMRI Study of the Interactions Between the Attention and the Gustatory Networks. Chemosens Percept 5:117-127
Small, Dana M (2012) Flavor is in the brain. Physiol Behav 107:540-52
Rudenga, K J; Small, D M (2012) Amygdala response to sucrose consumption is inversely related to artificial sweetener use. Appetite 58:504-7
Veldhuizen, Maria G; Small, Dana M (2011) Modality-specific neural effects of selective attention to taste and odor. Chem Senses 36:747-60
Veldhuizen, Maria G; Douglas, Danielle; Aschenbrenner, Katja et al. (2011) The anterior insular cortex represents breaches of taste identity expectation. J Neurosci 31:14735-44
Rudenga, K; Green, B; Nachtigal, D et al. (2010) Evidence for an integrated oral sensory module in the human anterior ventral insula. Chem Senses 35:693-703

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