Different tastes evoke particular dynamic patterns of electrical activity across the brain, scientists have found.
Researchers from the German Institute of Human Nutrition in Potsdam and the Charite University Hospital have demonstrated that taste is encoded in patterns of neural activity in the human brain.
Tastants in the mouth activate specific receptors on the tongue corresponding to each of the basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savoury (umami).
The signal is then transduced further to the brain. How the peripheral signal is used by the central nervous system to encode taste quality is largely unknown.
In the study, participants discriminated between sweet, salty, sour, and bitter tastants while their brain activity was recorded with electroencephalography (EEG), a method that measures minuscule electrical signals generated by billions of neurons in the human neocortex with millisecond resolution.
Different tastes evoked different dynamic patterns of electrical activity. A machine learning algorithm could be trained to discriminate between these patterns.
Thus, given a piece of data, the algorithm could decode from the pattern of brain-wide activity which taste a participant had received in that moment.
This form of “mind reading” even made it possible to decode which of four tastants participants thought to have tasted when they were, in fact, incorrect: tastes that participants frequently confused with each other (eg sour and salty) were also frequently confused by the algorithm.
“In future studies, we will go a step further and try to decipher from neural activity how pleasurable a taste was in addition to its category,” researcher Niko Busch said.
“This would be an important step to understanding how individual taste preferences are coded in the brain and of high relevance for clinical applications such as weight loss programmes,” Busch added.
The study was published in the journal Current Biology.