Have you ever been on a diet and wished that spinach excited your tastebuds? Or that chocolate left you cold?
Neuroscientists on Wednesday said they have discovered how to manipulate the brain to make sweet things off-putting and bitter ones nice, but only in mice, for now.
Mooting promise for an obesity treatment, researchers in the US said they have learned to “switch” parts of the brain’s “amygdala” on and off, turning sweetness into an aversive taste for laboratory mice and bitterness into a desirable one.
“The research points to new strategies for understanding and treating eating disorders, including obesity and anorexia nervosa,” said a statement from the Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, whose researchers took part in the study.
However, the method has yet to be tested in humans.
In the study, published in the scientific journal Nature, the researchers focused on the amygdalae.
In humans, these are a pair of organs in the temporal lobe known to play a role in emotions, as well as motivation, survival instinct and stress processing.
Previous research had shown that the amygdala connects directly to the taste cortex of the brain, the team said.
The new work reveals that the amygdala has separate sweet and bitter regions, just like the taste cortex.
As a result, “we could independently manipulate these brain regions and monitor any resulting changes in behavior” in mice, study coauthor Li Wang said.
The team used laser light stimulation to artificially “switch on” neuron connections to sweet or bitter regions of the amygdala.
When sweet connections were turned on, the mice responded to ordinary water as if it were sugar.
“And by manipulating the same types of connections, the researchers could even change the perceived quality of a taste, turning sweet into an aversive taste, or bitter into an attractive one,” the study said.
In another experiment, the researchers turned the amygdala connections “off,” but left the taste cortex untouched.
The mice ate, but without showing a preference for sugar or aversion to bitterness.
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