Taste Aversion Reveals How Bad Experiences Modify Brain and Behavior
Here is a complex conundrum for you to swallow: did you know that we subconsciously learn to avoid certain tastes depending on traumatic or negative lofe experiences? And that this very avoidance is what can fuel the long term reduction in activity and neuro connections between threat and taste sensors in the brain? And that's just fpr starters. Consider that notion a mere apperitif...
New studies conducted by neurologists are showing how a stomach ache associated with a novel, appealing food can form an aversion to that food in later weeks, months or years. So for example, you're enjoying your favourite peanut butter snack... something bad happens in that same moment, and your brain may well subconsciously associate x bad event with y food, kind of leading to an irreversible reqiring of negated associations between the experience and the food item. This study is also revealing how areas of the brain may work together to alter behavior based on good or bad experiences. Meaning... could chocolate truly make you naughty? Could that burger eaten alone in the back of a dreary parking lot cause melancholic stirs of reflective emotion? That's what we're trying to figure out, because consider our ability to create and rewire the emotive reaponders of the brain to be POSITIVE through the power of food. We'd be nourishable limitless superheroes! So let's tuck in.
The study involved conditioning rats to dislike the taste of sugar water, something they normally would like, by creating a mild digestive malaise after consumption. A powerful memory is formed when a pleasant taste is associated gastrointestinal pain, similar to an experience with food poisoning that results in an aversion to that food. How the brain works in this process to form a long lasting memory has been debated by scientists.
Now, there are areas of the brain involved in this specific form or learning—the basolateral amygdala and the portion of the insular cortex involved in taste processing (gustatory cortex) have been known for some time, but there is no clear understanding of how they may work together during learning. But we'll order *that meal of concept* next time.
By beginning to investigate the neural mechanisms behind the taste aversion response through means of optogenetics (which is a technique that combines light and genetic information to control neurons in the brain and recorded behavioral reactions and neural pathways involved in taste and threat), we are able to devise a direct link indicating that conditioned taste aversion learning decreases the strength of the synaptic connection between basolateral amygdala and gustatory cortex and leads to an overall decreased activation of neurons in the gustatory cortex—a different process from the widely accepted idea that to form a memory, neurons need to be active at the same time.
The findings also suggest reducing the activity between two brain centers can be an important way in which animals learn other behaviors, which adds to our understanding of the processes that enable the formation of memories and lead to changes in behavior.
What I'd like to see this research being put towards is the treatment of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, even binge eating disorder. Should we be able to negotiate with the brain-gut response to direct a positive outlook on life, a more enhanced perception of the self and the individuals surroundings and a better routed consideration and acknowledgment of nutrition, perhaps inpatient recovery systems wouldn't be so scarring. For many, PTSD and relapse come in abudnance post-discharge from an inpatient eating disorders unit. This is because the specific food or rigidified meal plans are carried into life back in the "real world", and are always associated with that negative experience of being hospitalised, thus causing the individual in question to (not always) revert back to their restrictive or disordered behaviours, because that is far more preferable than reliving the horrors of being cooped up like a chicken in a battery cage.
If however we can harness a method whereby we trick and treat the brain to enjoy x food and associate a positive y experience during x foods consumption, then perhaps relapse rates would decline. And recovery would remain on a positive trajectory. The results we have found clearly link reduced communication between the taste and threat-processing centers to a change in taste preference, and thus shows that changes in communication between brain centers can influence the way animals perceive and behave toward things that make them feel good or bad.
I believe we must bring greater emphasis on the fact that this discovery could have broader implications in the area of neurobiology intervention for helping people to break addictions to harmful substances. Although a substantial amount of additional research is required, this could very well be one of the missing keys that psychiatrists are lacking to provide further evidence on how these regions of the brain work toward taste and other related aversions.