Chapter 9. Hearing, Vestibular Perception, Taste, and Smell
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Brian Owens The hordes of microbes that inhabit every nook and cranny of every animal are not just passive hitchhikers: they actively shape their hosts’ well-being and even behaviour. Now, researchers have found evidence that bacteria living in the scent glands of hyenas help to produce the smells that the animals use to identify group members and tell when females are ready to mate. Kevin Theis, a microbial ecologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, had been studying hyena scent communication for several years when, after he gave a talk on the subject, someone asked him what part the bacteria might play. “I just said, ‘I don’t know’,” he says. He started investigating. He found that for 40 years, scientists had wondered whether smelly bacteria were involved in animals' chemical communication. But experiments to determine which bacteria were present had been inconclusive, because the microbes had to be grown in culture, which is not possible with all bacteria. However, next-generation genetic sequencing would enable Theis to identify the microbes in a sample without having to grow them in a dish. Using this technique, Theis and his colleagues last year published a study1 that identified more types of bacterium living in the hyenas’ scent glands than the 15 previous studies of mammal scent glands combined. In both spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) and striped hyenas (Hyaena hyaena), most of the bacteria were of a kind that ferments nutrients exuded by the skin and produces odours. “The diversity of the bacteria is enough to potentially explain the origin of these signals,” says Theis. Now, they have found that the structure of the bacterial communities varied depending on the scent profiles of the sour, musky-smelling 'pastes' that the animals left on grass stalks to communicate with members of their clan. In addition, in the spotted hyenas, both the bacterial and scent profiles varied between males and females, and with the reproductive state of females — all attributes that hyenas are known to be able to infer from scent pastes. The work is published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
By PAULA SPAN Jim Cooke blames his hearing loss on the constant roar of C-119 aircraft engines he experienced in the Air Force. He didn’t wear protective gear because, like most 20-year-olds, “you think you’re indestructible,” he said. By the time he was 45, he needed hearing aids for both ears. Still, he had a long career as a telephone company executive while he and his wife, Jean, raised two children in Broadview Heights, Ohio. Only after retirement, he told me in an interview, did he start having trouble communicating. Jean and Jim Cooke Jean and Jim Cooke Mr. Cooke had to relinquish a couple of part-time jobs he enjoyed because “I felt insecure about dealing with people on the phone,” he said. He withdrew from a church organization he led because he couldn’t grasp what members were saying at meetings. “He didn’t want to be in social situations,” Mrs. Cooke said. “It gave him a feeling of inadequacy, and anger at times.” Two years ago, when their grandchildren began saying that Granddad needed to replace his hearing aid batteries — although the batteries were fine — the Cookes went to the Cleveland Clinic, where an audiologist there, Dr. Sarah Sydlowski, told Jim that at 76, he might consider a cochlear implant. Perhaps the heart-tugging YouTube videos of deaf toddlers suddenly hearing sounds have led us to think of cochlear implants as primarily for children. Or perhaps, said Dr. Frank R. Lin, a Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist, we consider late-life hearing loss normal (which it is), “an unfortunate but inconsequential aspect of aging,” and don’t explore treatment beyond hearing aids. In any case, the idea of older adults having a complex electronic device surgically implanted has been slow to catch on, even though by far the greatest number of people with severe hearing loss are seniors. © 2013 The New York Times Company
by Laura Sanders Neonatal intensive care units are crammed full of life-saving equipment and people. The technology that fills these bustling hubs is responsible for saving the lives of fragile young babies. That technology is also responsible for quite a bit of noise. In the NICU, monitors beep, incubators whir and nurses, doctors and family members talk. This racket isn’t just annoying: NICU noise often exceeds acceptable levels set by the American Academy of Pediatrics, a 2009 analysis found. To dampen the din, many hospitals are shifting away from open wards to private rooms for preemies. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Fragile babies get their own sanctuaries where they can recover and grow in peace. But in a surprising twist, a new study finds that this peace and quiet may actually be bad for some babies. Well aware of the noise problem in the NICU ward, Roberta Pineda of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and colleagues went into their study of 136 preterm babies expecting to see benefits in babies who stayed in private rooms. Instead, the researchers found the exact opposite. By the time they left the hospital, babies who stayed in private rooms had less mature brains than those who stayed in an open ward. And two years later, babies who had stayed in private rooms performed worse on language tests. The results were not what the team expected. “It was extremely surprising,” Pineda told me. The researchers believe that the noise abatement effort made things too quiet for these babies. As distressing data from Romanian orphanages highlights, babies need stimulation to thrive. Children who grew up essentially staring at white walls with little contact from caregivers develop serious brain and behavioral problems, heartbreaking results from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project show. Hearing language early in life, even before birth, might be a crucial step in learning to talk later. And babies tucked away in private rooms might be missing out on some good stimulation. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
Learning a musical instrument as a child gives the brain a boost that lasts long into adult life, say scientists. Adults who used to play an instrument, even if they have not done so in decades, have a faster brain response to speech sounds, research suggests. The more years of practice during childhood, the faster the brain response was, the small study found. The Journal of Neuroscience work looked at 44 people in their 50s, 60s and 70s. The volunteers listened to a synthesised speech syllable, "da", while researchers measured electrical activity in the region of the brain that processes sound information - the auditory brainstem. Despite none of the study participants having played an instrument in nearly 40 years, those who completed between four and 14 years of music training early in life had a faster response to the speech sound than those who had never been taught music. Lifelong skill Researcher Michael Kilgard, of Northwestern University, said: "Being a millisecond faster may not seem like much, but the brain is very sensitive to timing and a millisecond compounded over millions of neurons can make a real difference in the lives of older adults." As people grow older, they often experience changes in the brain that compromise hearing. For instance, the brains of older adults show a slower response to fast-changing sounds, which is important for interpreting speech. Musical training may help offset this, according to Dr Kilgard's study. BBC © 2013
On Easter Sunday in 2008, the phantom noises in Robert De Mong’s head dropped in volume -- for about 15 minutes. For the first time in months, he experienced relief, enough at least to remember what silence was like. And then they returned, fierce as ever. It was six months earlier that the 66-year-old electrical engineer first awoke to a dissonant clamor in his head. There was a howling sound, a fingernails-on-a-chalkboard sound, “brain zaps” that hurt like a headache and a high frequency "tinkle" noise, like musicians hitting triangles in an orchestra. Many have since disappeared, but two especially stubborn noises remain. One he describes as monkeys banging on symbols. Another resembles frying eggs and the hissing of high voltage power lines. He hears those sounds every moment of every day. De Mong was diagnosed in 2007 with tinnitus, a condition that causes a phantom ringing, buzzing or roaring in the ears, perceived as external noise. When the sounds first appeared, they did so as if from a void, he said. No loud noise trauma had preceded the tinnitus, as it does for some sufferers -- it was suddenly just there. And the noises haunted him, robbed him of sleep and fueled a deep depression. He lost interest in his favorite hobby: tinkering with his ‘78 Trans Am and his two Corvettes. He stopped going into work. That month, De Mong visited an ear doctor, who told him he had high frequency hearing loss in both ears. Another doctor at the Stanford Ear, Nose and Throat clinic confirmed it, and suggested hearing aids as a possibility. They helped the hearing, but did nothing for the ringing. © 1996-2013 MacNeil/Lehrer Productions.
Link ID: 18885 - Posted: 11.07.2013
by Sarah Zielinski In the United States, you’re rarely far from a road. And as you get closer to one, or other bits of human infrastructure, bird populations decline. But are the birds avoiding our cars or the noises produced by them? Noise might be a big factor, scientists have reasoned, because they’ve seen declines in bird populations near noisy natural gas compressor sites. It turns out that the sound of cars driving down a road is enough to deter many bird species from an area. Researchers from Boise State University in Idaho created a “phantom road” at a site in the Boise Foothills that is a stopover for migratory birds in the fall. They put up 15 speakers in Douglas fir trees and played recorded sounds of a road at intervals of four days — four days on, four days off. They then counted birds at three locations along their phantom road and three locations nearby where the road noises couldn’t be heard. The scientists spotted lots of birds during their study — more than 8,000 detections and 59 species. The birds they saw changed as the fall progressed, which was natural because the various species of migrating birds hit the stopover point at different times. But all that variation was good for the experiment, the researchers say, because it helped even out any fluctuations they might have seen from site to site and from noise-on to noise-off intervals, letting the researchers tease out the effects of the road noise. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013.
By Cheryl G. Murphy Is it possible that our vision can affect our taste perception? Let’s review some examples of studies that claim to have demonstrated that sometimes what we see can override what we think we taste. From wine to cheese to soft drinks and more it seems that by playing with the color palette of food one can trick our palates into thinking we taste things that aren’t necessarily there. © 2013 Scientific American
Brian Owens Bats that nest inside curled-up leaves may be getting an extra benefit from their homes: the tubular roosts act as acoustic horns, amplifying the social calls that the mammals use to keep their close-knit family groups together. South American Spix’s disc-winged bats (Thyroptera tricolor) roost in groups of five or six inside unfurling Heliconia and Calathea leaves. The leaves remain curled up for only about 24 hours, so the bats have to find new homes almost every day, and have highly specialized social calls to help groups stay together. When out flying, they emit a simple inquiry call. Bats inside leaves answer with a more complex response call to let group members know where the roost is. Gloriana Chaverri, a biologist at the University of Costa Rica in Golfito, took curled leaves into the lab and played recorded bat calls through them, to see how the acoustics were changed by the tapered tubular shape of the leaves. “The call emitted by flying bats got really amplified,” she says, “while the calls from inside the leaves were not amplified as much.” Sound system The inquiry calls from outside the roost were boosted by as much as 10 decibels as the sound waves were compressed while moving down the narrowing tube — the same thing that happens in an amplifying ear trumpet. Most response calls from inside the leaf were boosted by only 1–2 decibels, but the megaphone shape of the leaf made them highly directional. The results are published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B1. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
By Cat Bohannon Halos, auras, flashes of light, pins and needles running down your arms, the sudden scent of sulfur—many symptoms of a migraine have vaguely mystical qualities, and experts remain puzzled by the debilitating headaches' cause. Researchers at Harvard University, however, have come at least one step closer to figuring out why women are twice as likely to suffer from chronic migraines as men. The brain of a female migraineur looks so unlike the brain of a male migraineur, asserts Harvard scientist Nasim Maleki, that we should think of migraines in men and women as “different diseases altogether.” Maleki is known for looking at pain and motor regions in the brain, which are known to be unusually excitable in migraine sufferers. In one notable study published in the journal Brain last year, she and her colleagues exposed male and female migraineurs to painful heat on the backs of their hands while imaging their brains with functional MRI. She found that the women had a greater response in areas of the brain associated with emotional processing, such as the amygdala, than did the men. Furthermore, she found that in these women, the posterior insula and the precuneus—areas of the brain responsible for motor processing, pain perception and visuospatial imagery—were significantly thicker and more connected to each other than in male migraineurs or in those without migraines. In Maleki's most recent work, presented in June at the International Headache Congress, her team imaged the brains of migraineurs and healthy people between the ages of 20 and 65, and it made a discovery that she characterizes as “very, very weird.” In women with chronic migraines, the posterior insula does not seem to thin with age, as it does for everyone else, including male migraineurs and people who do not have migraines. The region starts thick and stays thick. © 2013 Scientific American
Alice Roberts It's the rutting season. From Richmond Park to the Isle of Rum, red deer hinds will be gathering, and the stags that have spent the past 10 months minding their own business in bachelor groups are back in town, with one thing on their minds. A mature male that has netted himself a harem is very dedicated. He practically stops eating, focusing instead on keeping his hinds near and his competitors at bay. If you're a red deer stag, one of the ways you make sure that your adversaries know you mean business – and that you're big – is roaring. And you don't let up. You can keep roaring all day, and through the night too, twice a minute, if necessary. While female red deer prefer the deeper roars of larger stags, roaring also appears to be part of how stags size one another up, before deciding whether or not to get engaged in a full-on physical fight. Most confrontations are settled without locking antlers. In male red and fallow deer, the voicebox or larynx is very low in the throat – and gets even lower when they roar. Strap-like muscles that attach to the larynx contract to drag it down towards the breastbone – lengthening the vocal tract and deepening the stag's roar. Deepening the voice exaggerates body size. Over generations, stags with deeper roars presumably had more reproductive success, so the position of the larynx moved lower and lower in the neck. When a red deer stag roars his larynx is pulled down so far that it contacts the front of his breastbone – it couldn't get any lower. In human evolution, much is made of the low position of the larynx in the neck. So much, in fact, that it has been considered to be a uniquely human trait, and intrinsically linked to that other uniquely human trait: spoken language. But if red and fallow deer also have low larynges, that means, first, that we're not as unusual as we like to think we are, and second, that there could be other reasons – that are nothing to do with speaking – for having a descended larynx. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited
by Laura Sanders When I started to get out and about with Baby V, I occasionally experienced a strange phenomenon. Women would approach and coo some pleasant little noises. After an appropriate amount of time had passed, these strangers would lean in close and ask to smell my baby. I’m the first to admit that this sounds creepy. Truth be told, it is a little creepy. But now I completely get it. The joy from a single whiff of newborn far outweighs any trifling social conventions about personal space and body odors. So when women approach looking for a little hit of eau de bebe, I get sharey. By all means, ladies, lean in and smell away. Tiny babies smell very, very good. So good that I’m getting a little high from just thinking about how good babies smell. So good that people attempt to bottle and sell this scent (like this baby-head-scented spray— pleasant, but pales in comparison). So good that scientists really want to know why some women find this smell irresistible. Scientists recently studied the brains of women as they sniffed new baby scent. Two-day-old babies delivered the good stuff by wearing the same pajamas for two nights. Women then sniffed the odor extracted from the outfit while brain scans assessed neural activity. Overall, the 30 women in the study (who weren’t told what they were sniffing, by the way) rated the scent as mildly pleasant. As the intoxicating scent of newborn wafted into their brains, neural activity increased in areas of the brain linked to good feelings, called neostriate areas. In the brains of the 15 women who also happened to be mothers, the brain activity seemed stronger. (No word yet on what new baby smell does to dads’ brains.) © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013.
By Julianne Wyrick Some people are drawn to the thick smell of bacon, sizzling and crackling in the skillet on a Saturday morning. For others, it’s the aroma of freshly baked cookies on a Friday night or the smell of McDonald’s fries creeping in through the car window. At this time of year, I find the scent of freshly baked pumpkin muffins irresistible. Of course, I’d like to think I’m not a slave to my nose, at least not when I’m nice and full from dinner. If I were a fruit fly, my outlook might not be so good. Already-fed fruit fly larvae exposed to certain food-related odors ate more food than larvae that didn’t experience the smells, according to research published by scientists at the University of Georgia last spring. “They’re not hungry, but they will get an extra kick in terms of appetite, so they will eat, for example, 30 percent extra,” said Ping Shen, lead author on the study. The scents, which included the sweet odor of bananas or the sharper smell of balsamic vinegar, served as “cues” or triggers that the flies associated with food. The triggers motivated the fly larvae to eat, even when they’d already had dinner. That doesn’t bode so well for flies trying to watch their weight. For the fly to feel this urge to eat, the smell has to be transported from sensory receptors in the nose to the part of the brain that regulates appetite—the brain’s “feeding center”—via a series of neurons. Part of this signal transfer involves dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with behavior motivated by a cue or hint of something to come, like smells associated with food. © 2013 Scientific American
Heather Saul Stress can make the world around us smell unpleasant, the results of a new study are suggesting. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison used powerful brain imaging technologies to examine how stress and anxiety "re-wire" the brain. A team of psychologists led by Professor Wen Li discovered that when a person experiences stress, emotion systems and olfactory processing in the brain become linked, making inoffensive smells become unpleasant. Although the emotion and olfactory systems within the brain are usually found next to each other, there is rarely 'crosstalk' between the two. Writing in the Journal of Neuroscience, Prof Li said results from their research will now help to uncover the biological mechanisms at work when a person feels stressed. Using functional MRI scans, the team analysed the brain activity of 12 participants after showing them images designed to induce anxiety as they smelled familiar, neutral odours. The subjects were then asked to rate the different smells before being shown the disturbing image and afterwards. The majority showed a more negative response to odours that they had previously considered neutral. This fuels a 'feedback loop' that heightens distress, and can even lead to clinical issues such as depression. Prof Li explained: "After anxiety induction, neutral smells become clearly negative." “In typical odor processing, it is usually just the olfactory system that gets activated,” says Li. “But when a person becomes anxious, the emotional system becomes part of the olfactory processing stream. © independent.co.uk
Ballet dancers develop differences in their brain structures to allow them to perform pirouettes without feeling dizzy, a study has found. A team from Imperial College London said dancers appear to suppress signals from the inner ear to the brain. Dancers traditionally use a technique called "spotting", which minimises head movement. The researchers say their findings may help patients who experience chronic dizziness. Dizziness is the feeling of movement when, in reality, you are still. For most it is an occasional, temporary sensation. But around one person in four experiences chronic dizziness at some point in their life. When someone turns or spins around rapidly, fluid in the vestibular organs of the inner ear can be felt moving through tiny hairs. Once they stop, the fluid continues to move, which can make a person feel like they are still spinning. Ballet dancers train hard to be able to spin, or pirouette, rapidly and repeatedly. They use a technique called spotting, focusing on a spot on the floor - as they spin, their head should be the last bit to move and the first to come back. In the study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, the team recruited 29 female ballet dancers and 20 female rowers of similar age and fitness levels. BBC © 2013
Link ID: 18709 - Posted: 09.28.2013
By PETER ANDREY SMITH In a cavernous basement laboratory at the University of Minnesota, Thomas Stoffregen thrusts another unwitting study subject — well, me — into the “moving room.” The chamber has a concrete floor and three walls covered in faux marble. As I stand in the middle, on a pressure sensitive sensor about the size of a bathroom scale, the walls lurch inward by about a foot, a motion so disturbing that I throw up my arms and stumble backward. Indeed, the demonstration usually throws adults completely off balance. I’m getting off lightly. Dr. Stoffregen, a professor of kinesiology, uses the apparatus to study motion sickness, and often subjects must stand and endure subtle computer-driven oscillations in the walls until they are dizzy and swaying. Dr. Stoffregen’s research has also taken him on cruises — cruise ships are to motion sickness what hospitals are to pneumonia. “No one’s ever vomited in our lab,” he said. “But our cruises are a different story.” For decades now, Dr. Stoffregen, 56, director of the university’s Affordance Perception-Action Laboratory, has been amassing evidence in support of a surprising theory about the causes of motion sickness. The problem does not arise in the inner ear, he believes, but rather in a disturbance in the body’s system for maintaining posture. The idea, once largely ignored, is beginning to gain grudging recognition. “Most theories say when you get motion sick, you lose your equilibrium,” said Robert Kennedy, a psychology professor at the University of Central Florida. “Stoffregen says because you lose your equilibrium, you get motion sick.” Motion sickness is probably a problem as old as passive transportation. The word “nausea” derives from the Greek for “boat,” but the well-known symptoms arise from a variety of stimuli: lurching on the back of a camel, say, or riding the Tilt-a-Whirl at a fair. “Pandemonium,” the perpetually seasick Charles Darwin called it. Copyright 2013 The New York Times Company
By Michelle Roberts Health editor, BBC News online The thousands of aromas humans can smell can be sorted into 10 basic categories, US scientists say. Prof Jason Castro, of Bates College, and Prof Chakra Chennubhotla, of the University of Pittsburgh, used a computerised technique to whittle down smells to their most basic essence. They told the PLoS One journal they had then tested 144 of these and found they could be grouped into 10 categories. The findings are contentious - some say there are thousands of permutations. Prof Castro said: "You have these 10 basic categories because they reflect important attributes about the world - danger, food and so on. "If you know these basic categories, then you can start to think about building smells. "We have not solved the problem of predicting a smell based on its chemical structure, but that's something we hope to do." He said it would be important to start testing the theory on more complex aromas, such as perfumes and everyday smells. In reality, any natural scent was likely to be a complex mix - a blend of the 10 different categories, he said. Prof Tim Jacob, a UK expert in smell science at Cardiff University, said: "In the 1950s a scientist called John Amoore proposed a theory which involved seven smell categories based upon molecular shape and size. BBC © 2013
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 18671 - Posted: 09.19.2013
Amanda Fiegl What's the difference between a spicy meal and being tickled? Not much, from your lips' perspective. A new study reports that Szechuan pepper activates the same nerves that respond to a light physical touch. Researchers at the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience found that people experienced the same sensation when either Szechuan pepper—a spice used in many types of Asian cuisine—or a machine vibrating at a particular frequency was placed on their lips. "The pepper is sending the same information to the brain as having a buzzer on your lips," the study's lead author, Nobuhiro Hagura, said in an email. The study, published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B with the wry headline "Food Vibrations," delves into the little-known field of psychophysics, which "describes the relation between physical reality and what we actually perceive," Hagura said. "Our research shows just one interesting example of a case where we perceive something quite different than what is actually there," he said. "In many cases, the difference between perception and reality can be explained by understanding how the nervous system transmits information about the outside world to the brain." Previous studies have shown that other spicy ingredients, such as chili peppers and mustard oils, activate the nerve fibers associated with pain and physical heat. And studies in animals indicated that the spicy chemical in Szechuan pepper—sanshool—acts on the nervous system's "light touch" fibers. So Hagura and his colleagues wanted to find out whether sanshool produces a conscious sensation of touch in humans. © 1996-2013 National Geographic Society.
By Bruce Bower Babies have an ear for primeval dangers, a new study suggests. By age 9 months, infants pay special attention to sounds that have signaled threats to children’s safety and survival throughout human evolution, say psychologist Nicole Erlich of the University of Queensland, Australia, and her colleagues. Those sounds include a snake hissing, adults’ angry voices, a crackling fire, thunder claps and — as a possible indicator of a nearby but unseen danger — another infant’s cries. Noises denoting modern dangers, as well as pleasant sounds, failed to attract the same level of interest from 9-month-olds, Erlich and her colleagues report Aug. 27 in Developmental Science. People can learn to fear just about anything. But tens of thousands of years of evolution have primed infants’ brains to home in on longstanding perils, the scientists propose. “There is something special about evolutionarily threatening sounds that infants respond to,” Erlich says. Another study that supported that idea, by psychologist David Rakison of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, found that 11-month-olds rapidly learn to associate fearful faces with images of snakes and spiders (SN: 9/26/09, p. 11). “There is now a coherent argument that infants are biologically prepared in at least two sensory systems to learn quickly which evolutionarily relevant objects to fear,” Rakison says. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
Two pioneers in the study of neural signaling and three researchers responsible for modern cochlear implants are winners of The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation’s annual prize, announced today. The prestigious award honoring contributions in the medical sciences is often seen as a hint at future Nobel contenders. The prizes for basic and clinical research each carry a $250,000 honorarium. Richard Scheller of the biotech company Genentech and Thomas Südhof of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, got their basic research Laskers for discovering the mechanisms behind rapid the release of neurotransmitters—the brain’s chemical messengers—into the space between neurons. This process underlies all communication among brain cells, and yet it was “a black box” before Scheller and Südhof’s work, says their colleague Robert Malenka, a synaptic physiologist at Stanford. The two worked independently in the late 1980s to identify individual proteins that mediate the process, and their development of genetically altered mice lacking these proteins was “an ambitious and high-risk approach,” Malenka says. Although “they weren’t setting out to understand any sort of disease,” their discoveries have helped unravel the genetic basis for neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. This year’s clinical research prizes went to Graeme Clark, Ingeborg Hochmair, and Blake Wilson for their work to restore hearing to the deaf. In the 1970s, Hochmair and Clark of the cochlear implant company MED-EL in Innsbruck, Austria, and the University of Melbourne, respectively, were the first to insert multiple electrodes into the human cochlea to stimulate nerves that respond to different frequencies of sound. © 2012 American Association for the Advancement of Science
by Jon White Ever tried beetroot custard? Probably not, but your brain can imagine how it might taste by reactivating old memories in a new pattern. Helen Barron and her colleagues at University College London and Oxford University wondered if our brains combine existing memories to help us decide whether to try something new. So the team used an fMRI scanner to look at the brains of 19 volunteers who were asked to remember specific foods they had tried. Each volunteer was then given a menu of 13 unusual food combinations – including beetroot custard, tea jelly, and coffee yoghurt – and asked to imagine how good or bad they would taste, and whether or not they would eat them. "Tea jelly was popular," says Barron. "Beetroot custard not so much." When each volunteer imagined a new combination, they showed brain activity associated with each of the known ingredients at the same time. It is the first evidence to suggest that we use memory combination to make decisions, says Barron. Journal reference: Nature Neuroscience, doi: 10.1038/nn.3515 © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.