UTHSC Team Awarded $1.9 Million to Study Neuronal Activity in Central Taste Regions of the Brain

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The National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders has awarded $1.9 million to John Boughter, PhD, professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology and co-director of the Neuroscience Institute at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), to study the brain circuitry involved in processing novel tastes and foods. Max Fletcher, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, is also a principal investigator on the award.

Dr. John Boughter

Neophobia, or the fear of anything new, is an important concern in pediatric psychology. In children, the term generally refers to a tendency to reject unknown or new foods. A persistent unwillingness to try new foods or break from routine food choices can have both acute health consequences for a child and long-lasting effects that lead to eating disorders, poor health outcomes, and disease.

Little is known about the underlying neural circuits involved in taste neophobia. In this project, Dr. Boughter, Dr. Fletcher and their team will work to understand how information regarding the newness or familiarity of tastes are encoded within brain circuits. They hypothesize that neophobia is driven by enhanced responses in both the cortex and thalamus, while the process of learning that a new stimulus is safe to consume is mediated by a neurotransmitter (acetylcholine) released from forebrain inputs. Findings from the study will increase understanding of taste learning and the mechanics within sensory regions that process new sensations.

“Food neophobia is an important behavior for most animals,” Dr. Boughter said. “It is important to understand its neural organization in order to gain new insights into how feeding behaviors are controlled by the brain.”