New Ion Channel Identified for the Neurotransmission of Sweet, Bitter, and Umami Tastes

Take a moment to think about how amazing it is that we can taste so many flavors in the meals we eat!  Approximately ten thousand taste buds located on the surface of your tongue detect the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.  Each taste bud contains three different types of elongated taste cells (Type I, Type II, and Type III).  Each of these sensory neurons has a different mechanism for transducing a specific taste signal to the brain.  Type I glial-like cells detect the salty taste, while Type III presynaptic cells sense the sour taste.  Type II receptor cells recognize sweet, bitter, and umami tastes by expressing different types of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs).Continue reading

How does the brain locate sound sources?

The brain has an amazing ability to identify the source of sounds around you. When driving, you can tell where an approaching fire truck is coming from and pull over accordingly. In the classic swimming pool game of “Marco Polo,” the player who is “it” swims toward the players who says “Polo.” In the field of neuroscience, this ability is called sound localization. Humans can locate the source of a sound with extreme precision (within 2 degrees of space)! This remarkable feat is accomplished by the brain’s ability to interpret the information from both ears. So how does your brain do it?Continue reading

The Auditory System: From Sound Waves to Brain Waves

Our human experience is enriched by our senses. The world would appear to be a dull place if the brain did not endow us with the ability to construct visual images, appreciate the complexity of a song, experience the touch of a loved one, and perceive the smells and tastes of our favorite foods. Each of these sensory modalities (vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste) is incredibly complex, requiring specialized structures working in sync with interconnected network of neural circuits. Together, they allow for a rich experience of the world.Continue reading

Hearing is Believing: Cells that Enable Hearing after Birth

The sense of hearing is a critical part of how we experience life and the world around us. It is so important, in fact, that the ears are fully formed and functional when we are born. Despite its significance, hearing is often underappreciated until it is lost. Hearing loss affects more than 10% of all people worldwide. Whether it is due to age, exposure to loud noises, or genetic mutations, hearing loss occurs when hair cells, the receptors in the ears that respond to sound, become damaged and die. One of the biggest challenges in counteracting hearing loss is that hair cells cannot repair or regenerate themselves, so the damage is often permanent.Continue reading

The amygdala: a full brain integrator in the face of fear

You are sitting at your computer quietly reading this article when – BOOM! – there is a sharp loud noise behind you! You instinctively stop what you are doing, jump up, and turn to the source of the noise. You freeze where you stand, and your brain quickly assesses the danger of the situation. Although it may seem like a brief moment, your brain is processing a ton of information and trying to decide if you should run away or stay and fight!Continue reading

Superhuman Fearlessness? Think Again.

There are a handful of things that make me really uneasy. The mere thought of getting onto a roller coaster, especially the kind that slowly ascends hundreds of feet before dropping uncontrollably at high speeds, makes me want to let out a childish high-pitched squeal. Even the “cool” elevators that glide on the outside of buildings, which might give you a beautiful panoramic view, only leave me feeling sick.Continue reading

Social Grooming: It’s not just for monkeys and prairie voles!

Have you ever noticed how much time cats spend cleaning themselves? I’m sure they believe that “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” but spending 15% of their day grooming seems a bit excessive! Nevertheless, cats are not the only ones obsessed with hygiene, and many other animals regularly clean their fur, scales, feathers, and skin. For some animals, personal hygiene is not the only goal, and they will spend additional time grooming other members of their group. This is called social grooming and is characteristically seen in primates. The partnerships formed during social grooming are long-lasting, much like the relationship you have with your best friend. It might be unsurprising, then, that social grooming in primates serves primarily a social purpose, allowing animals to bond and build relationships. So what links grooming to social bonding?Continue reading

Not just skin deep: Neurons detect pleasurable touch

What separates us from our physical environment is our skin. From the minute we wake up, we use our somatosensation to start our tangible interaction with the world. Is the water in the shower warm enough? Ouch, that razor blade hurts! These socks are really soft! All of these are sensations attributed to numerous neurons that innervate our skin. While some sensations are quick and call for immediate response (like a pinprick), others are relatively slow and grow on us (like the warmth of water or the pleasure during a massage).Continue reading

Why Prairie Voles Fall in Love: A Chemical Romance

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, the most romantic day of the year. Couples will stroll down the lane, gaze into each other’s eyes, and experience one of the most enigmatic feelings of all: love. But we won’t be Cupid’s only targets; prairie voles will be falling in love, too! This Valentine’s Day eve, let’s discuss what we have learned about this crazy little thing called love from these little cute animals.Continue reading

Love is in the air! Or is that oxytocin?

Have you noticed the chocolates wrapped in bright red paper, teddy bears holding pink hearts in all the stores, and the endless supply of diamond commercials on television? Indeed, this Thursday is Valentine’s Day, which means couples will dote on each other with complete infatuation all day. But what happens after that lovely night out, when the alcohol is gone and the sugar high wears off? Will she notice the hot guys at the beach, and will his eyes wander to the attractive women walking across the street?Continue reading

What Songbirds Tell Us About Human Nature

Every once in a while, we hear of amazing scientific feats about how some new drug successfully reduces weight without dieting or exercise in monkeys, or how scientists slowed aging in worms and doubled their lifespans. These studies are often a cause for ridicule in the media, which reduces their significance and validity by implying that mice, flies, birds—any animal really—is not a true representation of the human condition.Continue reading