Think of the smell of freshly baking bread. There is something in that smell, without any other cues - visual or tactile - that steers you toward the bakery. On the flip side, there may be a smell, for instance that of fresh fish, that may not appeal to you. If you haven't eaten a morsel of food in three days, of course, a fishy odor might seem a good deal more attractive.
How, then, does this work? What underlying biological mechanisms account for our seemingly instant, almost unconscious ability to determine how attractive (or repulsive) a particular smell is? It's a very important question for scientists who are trying to address the increasingly acute problem of obesity: we need to understand much better than we now do the biological processes underlying food selection and preferences.
New research by neuroscientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), published in the Journal of Neuroscience, reveals a set of cells in the fruit fly brain that respond specifically to food odors. Remarkably, the team finds that the degree to which these neurons respond when the fly is presented different food odors - apple, mango, banana - predicts "incredibly well how much the flies will 'like' a given odor," says the lead author of the research paper, Jennifer Beshel, Ph.D., a postdoctoral investigator in the laboratory of CSHL Professor Yi Zhong, Ph.D.
"We all know that we behave differently to different foods - have different preferences. And we also all know that we behave differently to foods when we are hungry," explains Dr. Beshel. "Dr. Zhong and I wanted to find the part of the brain that might be responsible for these types of behavior. Is there somewhere in the brain that deals with food odors in particular? How does brain activity change when we are hungry? Can we manipulate such a brain area and change behavior?"