Arianna Maffei, Stony Brook University – Children’s Food Experiences Shapes Grown-Ups’ Taste Preferences

Why do we like the food we like as adults?

Arianna Maffei, professor of neurobiology and behavior at Stony Brook University, looks at the early years to find out.

I am a neuroscientist and I study how experience and learning affect the brain. I obtained my Bachelor degree in Biology in 1997 and my PhD in Biophysics in 2002, both from the University of Pavia (pronunciation: in Italy. In 2002, I moved to the United States to continue my training in neuroscience at Brandeis University, under the guidance of Dr. Gina Turrigiano. In 2008, I joined the faculty at Stony Brook University where I established my research group. The goal of my research is to determine how the experience with taste and food influence the development and function of brain circuits.

Children’s Food Experiences Shapes Grown-Ups’ Taste Preferences

People from different cultures have different preferences for what they like to eat, what they find bland, or too savory, or too sweet. How do these differences emerge? And what influences our taste preferences?

Studies in children suggest that their taste preferences are influenced by the food they ate as infants. But what about long-lasting effects, like those that influence eating habits in adults? Such questions are difficult to address in humans, because tracking somebody’s taste experience from infancy to adulthood is hardly possible.

But we can ask them in laboratory mice. The biology of the taste system is similar in all mammals. And yes, also mice have a sweet tooth! We leveraged this biological similarity and found that a week-long taste experience in young mice influenced taste preference when they were adults. The entire gustatory experience: taste in the mouth, smell in the nose, and calories in the belly was necessary for modifying taste preferences.

We next asked whether early taste experience changed the brain in ways that could be detected when the mice became adult. We measured the activity of brain cells in the gustatory cortex, the region of the brain that responds to taste, and found that early taste experience changed the way brain cells respond to taste.

This research tells us that taste preferences depend on the food encountered early on. Early experience with food leaves a signature in the brain and influences the preferred taste in adults. New research is investigating the effects of specific diets, high in fat, high in sugar or high in salt, on adult preference and on the brain, to learn more about the link between early nutrition and brain development.

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