FSU neuroscientist awarded $1.8M NIH grant to study brain’s influence on eating habits

Roberto Vincis, an assistant professor of Biological Science and Neuroscience. (Florida State University)
Roberto Vincis, an assistant professor of Biological Science and Neuroscience. (Florida State University)

A researcher in Florida State University’s Program in Neuroscience has received a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to investigate how the brain encodes information about food and how this information affects an individual’s overall eating habits and food choices.

Roberto Vincis, an assistant professor of Biological Science and Neuroscience, will lead the five-year study, funded by NIH’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, focusing on the role of different brain regions and how their interactions contribute to the sense of taste.

“Based on past research, we understand that eating habits start with how the brain encodes information about what we eat,” Vincis said. “Sometimes, these habits lead to problematic eating behaviors down the road, such as eating disorders or obesity. Our research should shed light on how the brain controls food consumption and feeding behaviors by studying the neural circuits and computations of brain regions involved in taste and reward processing.”

Human brains constantly receive sensory information from the outside world and compute the sensory information against the individual’s own experience, such as their background, behavioral state and previous times they may have encountered that same sensory information. The brain uses this information to build a perception of what the individual experiences.

“Our previous research, on which this grant builds, investigated cortical processing of various features of taste; we developed an experimental design allowing for the collection and analysis of behavioral and neural responses regarding taste,” said Cecilia Bouaichi, a neuroscience doctoral candidate and research assistant in Vincis’ lab.

When we eat and drink, our brains receive input about the food and beverages in our mouth. One input is taste. The brain perceives qualities such as salty, sweet or sour that are activated by chemicals in food and beverages as they bind to receptors in our mouths and on our tongues. The pleasure component of taste is simultaneously activated and helps us determine whether we like the food, Vincis explained.

The brain processes the information from the oral cavity based on these components and the individual’s backgrounds and behaviors. One experience is often all it takes to develop specific eating habits, such as a preference or aversion to certain foods.

Time and other factors such as illness or hunger can also factor into how the brain experiences a specific taste. Taste buds also regenerate every two weeks, meaning an individual’s preferences can change over time, which explains, for example, why adults might enjoy certain foods that they detested as children.

This study focuses on both behavior and neural activity while individuals consume food. The research team believes this study will help scientists better understand how different parts of the brain interact while individuals eat and how the brain encodes taste information.

“Because our decisions are driven by the information computed by our brains, if there is an issue in one of these brain regions, it can lead to impulsive behavior like choosing to do something even while understanding that it will have negative consequences,” Vincis said. “Eating disorders and other negative feeding habits manifest due to the brain integrating the sensory information or behavioral information improperly.”