Taste is a key driver in the €3.2 trillion global food industry and a greater understanding of the physiology of consumers, could lead to strong market advantages.
The brain "centre" called the NAc is a key component of the brain's "reward" pathways. Scientists at the University of North Carolina found that not only does the NAc decide whether stimuli - in this case sweet sucrose or bitter quinine - are rewarding or aversive, but the centre's neurons also encode learning associated with the stimuli.
The NAc is located in the brain's limbic system, which generates feelings and emotions.
Publishing their findings in Neuron, (volume 45, number 4, February 17, 2005, pages 587-597), the researchers found neurons in the NAc fired in response to both the sucrose and the quinine, showed that the brain centre played a role in judging both rewarding and aversive stimuli.
They also found that different sets of NAc neurons responded to the sucrose than to the quinine, revealing different circuitry for processing rewarding and aversive stimuli.
"The findings presented here continue to support the idea that the NAc comprises part of the brain's reward circuit," wrote the researchers.
"Neural responses are organized on a microcircuit level--that is, rewarding and aversive responses are segregated."