If you have eaten a chili pepper, you have likely felt how your body reacts to the spicy hot sensation. New research published by biologists at the University of Oklahoma shows that the brain categorizes taste, temperature and pain-related sensations in a common region of the brain. The researchers suggest the brain also groups these sensations together as either pleasant or aversive, potentially offering new insights into how scientists might better understand the body’s response to and treatment of pain.
“The spicy hot sensation you get from a chili pepper is actually a pain sensation…this follows activation of pain-related fibers that innervate the tongue and are heat sensitive,” said Christian H. Lemon, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biology in the Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences at OU. “What happens is a chemical in chili peppers, called capsaicin, causes activation of pain fibers and ‘tricks’ the neurons to react like there is a heat stimulus in your mouth, so you’ll notice when you eat spicy foods, your body will react to try to remove the heat—your blood vessels can dilate and you can start to sweat because your body ‘thinks’ it’s overheating.”
Lemon, who is also a member of the OU Institute for Biomedical Engineering, Science and Technology, and researchers in his lab, Jinrong Li, Ph.D., and Md Sams Sazzad Ali, Ph.D., published an article in the Journal of Neuroscience that examines how taste, temperature and pain-related sensations interact in the brain. Their article was also selected for the journal’s Featured Research section.
“Neural messages associated with pain are partly carried by neural circuits involved with sensing temperature,” Lemon said. “This would explain, for example, why when you touch a hot stove, it’s a burning pain. There are intimate ties between temperature and pain, and there are intimate ties between temperature and taste…just about everything we eat is either warmed or cooled, and that’s known to have a fairly robust effect on the way we perceive certain tastes.”
The research team wanted to better understand how temperature and pain intersect with taste neurologically. Building on their previous research that had shown that temperature and taste signals come together in a particular section of the midbrain, Lemon’s research group used mouse models under anesthesia to artificially stimulate temperature and pain-related fibers, combined with a physiological method to monitor the actions occurring in the brain to determine the connection between these senses.
“It’s been known that temperature and taste can activate some of the same cells in the brain, but this was rarely systematically studied,” he said. “We wanted to know if the temperature responses that we were seeing in this part of the brain were actually attributable to activation of thermal and pain-related fibers that innervate the head, face and mouth. To do this we used a modern genetic technology where we could insert a protein into these ‘temperature/pain’ cells that allowed us to control these cells with blue light—we could turn the cells on with a light, like a light switch.”
“What we found is that these neurons that scientists have studied for a long time as taste neurons actually respond to artificial stimulation of these temperature/pain cells,” he added. “This is significant because most scientists that have looked at taste, they’re usually only studying neural circuits from the perspective of taste. Pain scientists are usually only looking at pain-related responses, but they actually come together in this part of the midbrain, and not only do they come together, they do so in a very systematic way where preferred tastes and preferred temperatures are separated from adverse taste and temperatures in terms of the way that the responses are happening in this part of the brain.”
The researchers categorize preferred or pleasurable tastes as something sweet, like sugar, whereas adverse tastes are bitter—which can signify that something may be toxic or harmful. Similarly, people, and mice, have preferred temperatures, like a comfortably warmed or cooled environment as compared to an extreme cold or extreme heat stimulus.
Through this artificial stimulation of temperature/pain cells and the corresponding taste neurons, they discovered the brain segregated preferable tastes and temperatures from adverse tastes and temperatures. This finding offers new insights into how these senses interact, which could have implications for how scientists understand the brain’s responses to stimuli that cause pain.
“What our results show is that in a midbrain circuit there’s a very orderly representation of taste and temperature hedonics—whether or not something is pleasurable or aversive—dependent on input from these temperature/pain cells,” Lemon said. “These findings suggest that the brain is actually using common cells to represent information from different senses where there are relationships between the senses. Since pain has ties to temperature sensing, these results might provide clues as to how temperature or pain signals might interact with other senses, which could be important for developing novel therapeutic strategies for pain management.”
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