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Undergrad explores link between brain, taste

park [1]Sarah E. Park thought she’d spend her summer internship cleaning test tubes — the research equivalent of making sure the coffee pot was always full and the cups clean.

The Binghamton University senior did wash test tubes; everyone in Patricia Di Lorenzo’s lab does. But Park also had an opportunity to run her own experiment, collect data and discover new things about the brain and how it processes taste.

She was one of 13 SUNY Brain Summer Scholars doing a 10-week stint in neuroscience laboratories across New York, part of President Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies program to develop new ways to treat and prevent brain disorders.

“It felt so legitimate,” says Park, 21, an integrative neuroscience major from Hannibal, N.Y. “For once, I really felt connected to science.”

Di Lorenzo, a professor of psychology at Binghamton, studies how the brain stem processes taste. Cooks can explain the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami. And they can explain that smell influences how humans perceive taste. But how does the brain do that?

Park helped find out. She analyzed how the brains of lab rats responded to the stimulus of grape juice in relation to its simpler sweet counterpart, sucrose. She set the experiment up, gathered the data and reported back to the lab, although she hesitates to draw her own conclusions.

“But all of a sudden, you have your own ideas churning,” Park says.

Di Lorenzo and Park found the brain stem — long known to be the processing center for the five basic tastes — does much more. Neurons in the rat brain stem responded to grape juice with slight but definite differences than they did for sucrose. It was a pattern repeated with clam juice as a salt surrogate, and other flavors, too.

It suggests, Di Lorenzo says, that the brain stem is responsible for more than just taste and is a multi-modal processing center that also responds to smell.

And Park, an undergraduate, helped discover that. “She was great,” Di Lorenzo says. “She was independent; she was reliable. She learned a lot.”

Park also learned that she’d like to make research part of her future. She plans to consider her options, including MD/Ph.D. programs, during a gap year following graduation. “I’m still young,” she says, “and I know there’s so much I want to learn.”

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