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Taste quality representation in the human brain

By Jason A Avery, Alexander G Liu, John E Ingeholm, Cameron D Riddell, Stephen J. Gotts, Alex Martin

Posted 06 Aug 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/726711 (published DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1751-19.2019)

In the mammalian brain, the insula is the primary cortical substrate involved in the perception of taste. Recent imaging studies in rodents have identified a "gustotopic" organization in the insula, whereby distinct insula regions are selectively responsive to one of the five basic tastes. However, numerous studies in monkeys have reported that gustatory cortical neurons are broadly-tuned to multiple tastes, and tastes are not represented in discrete spatial locations. Neuroimaging studies in humans have thus far been unable to discern between these two models, though this may be due to the relatively low spatial resolution employed in taste studies to date. In the present study, we examined the spatial representation of taste within the human brain using ultra-high resolution functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at high magnetic field strength (7-Tesla). During scanning, participants tasted sweet, salty, sour and tasteless liquids, delivered via a custom-built MRI-compatible tastant-delivery system. Our univariate analyses revealed that all tastes (vs. tasteless) activated primary taste cortex within the bilateral dorsal mid-insula, but no brain region exhibited a consistent preference for any individual taste. However, our multivariate searchlight analyses were able to reliably decode the identity of distinct tastes within those mid-insula regions, as well as brain regions involved in affect and reward, such as the striatum, orbitofrontal cortex, and amygdala. These results suggest that taste quality is not represented topographically, but by a combinatorial spatial code, both within primary taste cortex as well as regions involved in processing the hedonic and aversive properties of taste.

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