Discovered hungry neurons, they light up at the sight of food
Discovered a small group of ‘hungry’ neurons, which are activated specifically at the sight of food. It is found in the visual cortex, alongside other groups that respond instead to faces, bodies, places and words, and could explain the importance that food plays within human culture. The discovery, published in the journal Current Biology, is due to a group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and opens the door to new questions about how and why this particular neural population develops and whether it is activated differently on the basis of to personal tastes.
The researchers, led by Meenakshi Khosla, analyzed brain scans obtained with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while eight people looked at thousands of images. The image of an fMRI is made up of many three-dimensional units (called voxels) that represent sections of the brain, each containing hundreds of thousands of neurons: this means that the presence of smaller populations of neurons could go unnoticed. For this reason, the researchers also applied a mathematical method that allowed them, in addition to confirming the presence of the four groups that light up by looking at faces, bodies, places and words, also to discover the existence of a fifth group, specific for the food.
“At the beginning we were rather perplexed, because food is not a visually homogeneous category”, Khosla says: “Apples, corn and pasta seem very different things from each other – continues the researcher – and yet we found a unique population that responds in a similar way to all these different food products “. According to the authors of the study, food selectivity was not discovered earlier because the group of neurons is found mixed with other nearby neural populations that respond to other stimuli.
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