How does the brain decide whether you like what you eat?

When we encounter a taste, we appreciate both its chemosensory properties and its palatability—the degree to which the taste is pleasurable or aversive. Recent work suggests that the processing of this complex taste experience may involve coordination between multiple brain areas. Dissecting these interactions help understand the organization and working of the taste system.

F4.largeThe lateral hypothalamus (LH) is a region of the brain important for feeding. In a rodent, damage the LH, and the rodent may starve itself to death; stimulate it, and you get a curious mix of voracious eating and expressions of disgust over what is being eaten. Such data suggest that LH plays a complex game of balancing escape and avoidance, palatability and aversion, during the evaluation of a taste stimulus. Little is known, however, about how neurons in LH actually respond to tastes of different valences.

Brandeis postdocs Jennifer Li and Takashi Yoshida. undergraduate Kevin Monk ’13, and Associate Professor of Psychology Don Katz have recently published a study of neuronal reponses in LH in the Journal of Neuroscience. They have shown that taste-responsive neurons in LH break neatly down into two groups–one that responds preferentially to palatable tastes and one to aversive tastes. Virtually every taste neuron in LH could be identified as a palatable- or aversive-preferring neuron. In addition, even without considering the specific tastes to which a particular neuron responded, these two groups of neurons could be differentiated according to their baseline firing rate, shape of response, and tuning width. While these neurons were spatially intermingled, several pieces of data (functional connectivity analysis, relationship to responses in amygdala and cortex) suggest that they are parts of distinct neural circuits. These results offer insights into the multiple feeding-related processes that LH manages, and how the hypothalamus’ role in these processes might be related to its connection to other parts of the taste system.

Li JX, Yoshida T, Monk KJ, Katz DB. Lateral Hypothalamus Contains Two Types of Palatability-Related Taste Responses with Distinct Dynamics. J Neurosci. 2013;33(22):9462-73.

Jennifer Gutsell to join Psychology faculty

Paul DiZio, Chair of the Psychology department, writes:

Jennifer Gutsell, Ph.D.I am happy to announce that Jennifer Gutsell has accepted an offer for a faculty position in Psychology.  Thanks to those of you who participated in the search.  […]

In Jennifer, we sought and found an individual who takes a biological or neuroscience approach to social/development psychology.  Jenifer got her PhD in Psychology at the University of Toronto and is currently doing a post-doc there. She studies neural mechanisms of human group formation and inter-group perception and attitudes.  Her work has  replicated and extended earlier reports that people accurately perceive the intentions and actions of others in the group they belong to but show less empathy for others outside their group, an effect which is greater in people who score higher on a scale of prejudice, and she also showed that the EEG mu rhythm, a non-invasive index of mirror system activation, is suppressed when people judge ingroup but not outgroup targets.  Jennifer has cautiously interpreted this correlation between social empathy and neuromotor resonance, and one her first research aims at Brandeis will be conducting an experimental test of the direction of causality.

Jennifer will start at Brandeis in the fall, but will be available to meet with prospective grad students during recruiting.  More about Jennifer’s research and publications can be found on her website at

Taste affects your sense of smell in the olfactory cortex

Professor Don Katz’s lab is interested in learning and behavior related to the gustatory system (the sense of taste). In a new paper in Journal of Neuroscience, also covered by the Washington Post website, Katz and  postdoc Joost Maier together with Univ. of Utah professor Matt Wachowiak, studied how tastes affect the processing of odors.

When any animal eats, it both smells and tastes the food, and has to make a split-second decision — is it nutritious or poisonous? Do I swallow it or spit it out? Accordingly, there has to be a processing system in the brain to integrate the information and make rapid decisions. It has been known for some time that odors affect the processing of taste in gustatory cortex. In the new article, the researchers demonstrate the effects of taste inputs on olfactory cortex. According to Maier, “this means is that the different senses are really interacting with each other at a much earlier level than previously thought,”.

Neuroscience club hosts discussion of traumatic brain injury on Sep 24

The Brandies Neuroscience Club presents a multi-faceted discussion on Traumatic Brain Injury, to take place on Monday, September 24, from 6:00-7:00 pm in the Luria rooms in Hassenfeld Conference Center.

Traumatic brain injury, which occurs when an external force injures the brain, can lead to social, cognitive, emotional and behavioral disabilities, or even death. As TBI is becoming recognized as a serious public health issue, especially among veterans, the Brandeis Neuroscience Club has organized a panel discussing the biology of TBI, cutting-edge research in treatments, and the personal story of a TBI survivor.

Neuroscience professor Art Wingfield will begin the evening by introducing the different types of traumatic brain injury, the healing and recovery process, and some of the specific cognitive functions that can be affected by these injuries. Health Science, Society and Policy professor Laura Lorenz will then describe the limitations of current rehabilitation therapies, and  her proposal for community-based rehabilitation for chronic brain injury, inspired by both clinical research and her work investigating the experience of TBI survivors. Finally, Peggy Sue Lebba, a former health care professional will discuss her experience living with and healing from mild traumatic brain injury that changed her life 10 years ago. Using photographs and captions, she will provide a glimpse inside her challenges, struggles and eventual acceptance of her “new self” and abilities. Her story illustrates the important roles that resilience, hope, and support from family, friends, and medical professionals can play in helping individuals with brain injury to overcome adversity and find new meaning in life.

Social/Developmental Psychology, Tenure-Track Position

The Department of Psychology at Brandeis University invites applications for a tenure track assistant professor position to begin in September, 2013. Exceptional candidates will be considered for a tenured associate professor appointment. We seek an individual who takes a biological or neuroscience approach to social/developmental psychology.

The successful candidate will show outstanding promise as a researcher, classroom teacher and research supervisor for undergraduate and graduate students. Teaching responsibilities include undergraduate courses in Social Psychology and Research Methods or Statistics and advanced specialized seminars. Candidates must have an ongoing research program with evidence of, or strong potential for, extramural funding. Applicants should submit a curriculum vitae, research synopsis, statement of teaching philosophy, three letters of recommendation, and copies of representative scholarly work to:

Mr. Phil Gnatowski (
Department of Psychology MS062
Brandeis University
415 South St
Waltham, MA 02453.

Review of applications will begin October 1, 2012, and will continue until the position is filled.

Brandeis University is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer committed to increasing the faculty’s diversity. Members of underrepresented groups are strongly encouraged to apply.

Grad student teaching awards 2012

Nineteen graduate students from across the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences were recognized for their superb efforts as teaching assistants at a reception on May 1. Awards were made by department based on overall teaching quality, student and course instructor evaluations, and letters from faculty. Graduate students from the Division of Science so recognized were:

  • Margeaux Auslander (Psychology – Verna Regan Award)
  • Keri Avery (Chemistry–general chemistry laboratory sections)
  • Michael Drzyzga (Chemistry–organic chemistry laboratory sections)
  • Qian Liu (Chemistry–upper level laboratory sections)
  • Lishibanya Mohapatra (Physics)
  • Matthew Moynihan (Mathematics)
  • Andrew Russell (Molecular and Cell Biology – Pulin Sampat Memorial Award)
  • Ross Shaull (Computer Science)

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