A recent paper in Current Biology titled “A Multisensory Network for Olfactory Processing” from the Katz Lab in Psychology tackles the question of where in rat brain the senses of taste and smell are processed, and just how distinct the two senses are. In addition to Katz, authors on the paper include former postdoctoral fellows Joost Maier and Jennifer Li, as well as Neuroscience graduate student Meredith Blankenship.
The paper discusses their finding that the tongue and the nose work together to help you decide what potential foods are actually good to eat. This intimate cooperation leads to an intertwining and interdependence of function; everyone who has had a cold knows that things don’t taste right when the sense of smell is blocked (by snot). They now show that the opposite is true as well–specifically, that the part of the cortex known to be responsible for taste is also required for the sense of smell.
First, they show that there is a strong neural connection between taste cortex (GC) and olfactory cortex (PC): this connection ensures that information about tastes in the mouth reaches the latter from the former, but also ensures that a constant chatter of action potentials (the language of the brain) flows between the two, even in the total absence of a substance on the tongue. Thus, switching those taste cortex neurons off both removes any evidence of taste information in olfactory cortex AND changes the way olfactory cortex deals with odor information arriving directly from the nose. The result of this impact is striking: a rat utterly fails to recognize a familiar odor when taste cortex is silent; the taste system is a part of the smell system.
The implications of this finding for neuroscience are far-reaching. It suggests a major breakdown of the basic dogma that the different sensory systems, each of which originate in distinct sense organs (the nose for smell, the tongue for taste) process their input independently. In fact, the brain likely doesn’t “see” tastes and smells as separate at all, but as unified parts of holistic objects…FOOD.