Maps of the human tongue don’t demonstrate how humans taste food (despite what the famously bad tongue map suggests), but a map of the human brain might. By manipulating regions of mice brains associated with taste, scientists can not only map how the brains process taste, but make the mice believe that they’re tasting things that they aren’t, according to new research published in Nature on Wednesday.
The researchers conducted this research by giving mice water. (Despite what bottled water pundits may say, this water effectively has no taste.) Then, they targeted the part of the brain that processes taste, the amygdala. By tinkering with signals to the amygdala, researchers were able to make the mice believe the water was sweet or bitter.
The experiment sought to understand how the brain processes taste, but the eventual paper suggested the potential implications are much bigger: since the amygdala is also involved with integrating senses, coordinating movement, learning, and remembering, figuring out how it works can also help us understand, and perhaps manipulate, these other functions.
The related press release says the research also illuminates “new strategies for understanding and treating eating disorders including obesity and anorexia nervosa” by targeting parts of the brain, like the amygdala, that are associated with processing taste.
It may not be that simple: Eating disorders are complex disorders driven by an equally complex combination of genetic, environmental, and social factors. Eating disorders have also been linked with other health issues like anxiety and depression. Some scholars refer to eating disorders as “biopsychosocial” phenomenon because it’s crucial to consider the psychological and social factors that may drive the disorder, in addition to biological responses.
It’s important to note that the term “eating disorders” is an umbrella term that refers to a huge variety of behaviors that all happen to manifest through eating. That’s why the way you treat anorexia is not the same way that you treat, say, binge eating disorder, bulimia, or obesity—they’re fundamentally different.
In an email to The Outline, Anne Holden, Columbia University's science communication officer, noted that the research strongly connects to eating disorders that are driven by cravings.
“The ultimate goal is to map the entire taste system in the brain,” Holden said. “Then, with that knowledge, researchers can find points along that system that can be manipulated or switched off with small molecules that could, say, remove cravings for sweet that result in overeating and obesity.
Even so, Holden noted that the amygdala influences multiple eating disorders, including anorexia. The amygdala simply works in different ways for different disorders. It’s certainly possible that mapping the brain and understanding the amygdala will help us understand what drives certain eating disorders. That said, brain chemistry need not shoulder the burden of sugar addiction driven by massive corporations.