January 7, 2021

Neuroenology: how the brain creates the taste of wine

Flavour science is concerned with the sensory appreciation of food. However, flavor is not in the food; it is created by the brain, through multiple sensory, motor, and central behavioral systems. We call this new multidisciplinary field “neurogastronomy.” It is proving useful in integrating research findings in the brain with the biomechanics of generating food volatiles and their transport through retronasal smell.

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Recent findings in laboratory animals and in humans give new insights into the adaptations that have occurred during evolution that give humans an enhanced flavor perception. This process will be illustrated by an analysis of how the brain creates the taste of wine. The successive stages of the biomechanics of movement of the ingested wine and transport of the released volatiles will be correlated with activation of the multiple brain mechanisms, apparently engaging more of the brain than any other human behavior.

These stages include the initial cephalic phase, visual analysis, ingestion, formation of the wine perceptual image, formation of the wine perceptual object, swallowing, and post-ingestive effects. This combined biomechanic and brain mechanism approach suggests a new discipline of “neuroenology (neuro-oenology),” adding to the contributions that science can make to the enhanced quality and appreciation of wine.

Some principles of neurogastronomy

To begin, flavor is not in the food; it is created from the food by the brain. There is a clear analogy with other sensory systems. In vision, for example, color is not in the wave lengths of light; color is created from the wave lengths by the neural processing circuits in the visual pathway; these include center-surround interactions for color-opponent mechanisms. Similarly, pain is not in the agents that give rise to it, such as a pin or a toxin; pain is created by the neural processing mechanisms and circuits in the pain pathway, together with central circuits for emotion

Analyzing the wine flavor object. Summary of activation of flavor systems related to wine tasting. Sensory pathways include touch, taste, olfaction, visual cortex (audition not shown). Motor pathways include mouth: tongue, cheek, jaw, glands producing saliva; pharynx; lungs for inhalation and exhalation. Ellipses represent activation of central brain systems for memory, emotion, motivation, reward, and language. Adapted from