Research Article: Flavor pleasantness processing in the ventral emotion network

Date Published: February 16, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Jelle R. Dalenberg, Liselore Weitkamp, Remco J. Renken, Luca Nanetti, Gert J. ter Horst, Veronika Schöpf.


The ventral emotion network–encompassing the amygdala, insula, ventral striatum, and ventral regions of the prefrontal cortex–has been associated with the identification of emotional significance of perceived external stimuli and the production of affective states. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies investigating chemosensory stimuli have associated parts of this network with pleasantness coding. In the current study, we independently analyzed two datasets in which we measured brain responses to flavor stimuli in young adult men. In the first dataset, participants evaluated eight regular off the shelf drinking products while participants evaluated six less familiar oral nutritional supplements (ONS) in the second dataset. Participants provided pleasantness ratings 20 seconds after tasting. Using independent component analysis (ICA) and mixed effect models, we identified one brain network in the regular products dataset that was associated with flavor pleasantness. This network was very similar to the ventral emotion network. Although we identified an identical network in the ONS dataset using ICA, we found no linear relation between activation of any network and pleasantness scores within this dataset. Our results indicate that flavor pleasantness is processed in a network encompassing amygdala, ventral prefrontal, insular, striatal and parahippocampal regions for familiar drinking products. For more unfamiliar ONS products the association is not obvious, which could be related to the unfamiliarity of these products.

Partial Text

The perceived pleasantness of flavors differs widely between individuals. Despite this variety, expressing affective responses to a flavor stimulus is very similar across individuals. This is reflected in characteristic positive facial expressions (e.g. lip licking and tongue protrusions) and negative facial expressions (e.g. gaping or making a facial grimace) in response to pleasant and unpleasant food stimuli, respectively [1,2]. Thus, although personal preferences may differ, changes in perceived pleasantness seem to be processed similarly across individuals.

To the best of our knowledge, the current fMRI study is the first to investigate flavor pleasantness processing including both tasting and swallowing using a network-based analysis. We aimed to find a hedonic functional brain network associated with pleasantness coding of flavors, and to investigate whether this network encompasses the ventral emotion network defined in [5]. In two separate datasets, we found a functional network showing large overlap with the ventral emotional network. Whereas activity of this ventral emotion network was associated with flavor pleasantness of off-the-shelf drinks, we found no association between this emotion network and pleasantness ratings of oral nutritional supplements. There were no other functional networks within each data set significantly associated with pleasantness scores.

We found that a ventral emotion network (consisting of the ventral prefrontal cortex, ventral striatum, amygdala, insula and parahippocampal gyrus) in the brain is associated with flavor pleasantness perception for regular products. These areas subdivide into a part that is positively associated with pleasantness and a part that is negatively associated with pleasantness. Our results indicate that although a highly similar network can be identified when tasting ONS, pleasantness for these products is processed differently. This could be related to the novelty of these products.




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