Scientists at Zuckerman Institute in Columbia University found it’s possible to switch off the brain’s craving for sweets. The discovery might someday lead to new strategies for treating eating disorders like severe obesity or anorexia nervosa.
Do you feel helpless to say no to a second helping of dessert or find it next to impossible to put down a bag of potato chips? Picture a scenario where doctors could manipulate the brain in such a way that the unhealthy foods you love would hold no attraction. While this may sound pie-in-the-sky, it could possibly become a future reality.
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Tastes Trigger an Emotional Response
In the study, researchers noted that an animal’s desire for sweet foods and aversion for bitter ones could be removed by manipulating nerve cells in the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain. Yet they saw the elimination of emotions associated with tastes didn’t take away the ability to identify the tastes. The findings indicated that it’s possible to change or remove the brain’s taste system, which involves a plethora of memories, emotions and thoughts.
“When our brain senses a taste it not only identifies its quality, it choreographs a wonderful symphony of neuronal signals that link that experience to its context, hedonic value, memories, emotions and the other senses, to produce a coherent response,” senior author Charles S. Zuker, Ph.D. said.
In prior research, Zuker and his colleagues mapped out the brain’s taste system. They pinpointed specialized regions of the brain that receive signals when the tongue encounters five tastes — sweet, sour, salty, bitter or umami. The team observed that when the signals reached the brain, it elicited a behavioral response appropriate to the tastes; for example, eagerly devouring a chocolate chip cookie or retching after eating something bitter.
Rewired Brain Changes Response to Tastes
Endeavoring to build on these results, the current study sought to understand more fully the ties between tastes and the brain. The scientists confined their investigation to the effects of sweet and bitter tastes on the amygdala. This part of the brain plays a key role in processing emotions and attributing positive or negative values to sensory information. Earlier research by Zuker and others has shown that the amygdala is directly connected to the taste cortex.
In several experiments, the team succeeded in artificially switching on sweet and bitter connections to the amygdala. When sweet connections were turned on, the animals’ craved water as if it were sugar. In other manipulations, the researchers observed that they could alter the perception of tastes, transforming bitter into a desirable taste and sweet into an aversive one.
Moreover, when the research team shut down the amygdala connections but didn’t touch the taste cortex, the animals could distinguish between sweet and bitter but they were lacking the emotional responses of finding sweet tastes attractive and bitter tastes aversive.
“It would be like taking a bite of your favorite chocolate cake but not deriving any enjoyment from doing so,” first author Li Wang Ph.D. said. “After a few bites, you may stop eating, whereas otherwise you would have scarfed it down.”
What’s Next for the Researchers?
In addition to ties between the taste cortex and the amygdala, the cortex also is connected to brain regions that deal with memory, learning and motor actions. Zuker and Wand will soon investigate these ties.
“Our goal is to piece together how those regions add meaning and context to taste,” Wang added. “We hope our investigations will help to decipher how the brain processes sensory information and brings richness to our sensory experiences.”
The study shows how tastes are intricately connected to emotions, which is why eating is such a pleasurable experience. Since the findings showed these feelings can be manipulated, it isn’t hard to imagine how such an intervention might help obesity patients, particularly if it could be reversed and the emotions restored once the excess weight is lost. Much remains to be learned before the results can be used in treatment. Nonetheless, it’s intriguing to see how a taste on the tongue elicits emotions, which in turn, stimulate certain behaviors.
The study was published in the journal Nature.
Mary West is a natural health enthusiast, as she believes this area can profoundly enhance wellness. She is the creator of a natural healing website where she focuses on solutions to health problems that work without side effects. You can visit her site and learn more at http://www.alternativemedicinetruth.com. Ms. West is also the author of Fight Cancer Through Powerful Natural Strategies.