ABSTRACT: Typically, stimulus batteries used to characterize sensory neural coding span physical parameter spaces (e.g., concentration: from low to high). For awake animals, however, psychological variables (e.g., pleasantness/palatability) with complicated relationships to the physical often dominate neural responses. Here we pit physical and psychological axes against one another, presenting awake rats with a stimulus set including 4 NaCl concentrations (0.01, 0.1, 0.3, and 1.0 m) plus palatable (0.3 m sucrose) and aversive (0.001 m quinine) benchmarks, while recording the activity of neurons in two sites vital for NaCl taste processing, gustatory cortex (GC) and central amygdala (CeA). Since NaCl palatability (i.e., preference) follows a non-monotonic, "inverted-U-shaped" curve while concentration increases monotonically, this stimulus battery allowed us to test whether GC and CeA responses better reflect external or internal variables. As predicted, GC single-neuron and population responses reflected both parameters in separate response epochs: sodium concentration-related information appeared with the earliest taste-specific responses, giving way to palatability-related information, in an overlapping subset of neurons, several hundred milliseconds later. CeA single-neuron and population responses, meanwhile, contained only a brief period of concentration specificity, occurring just before palatability-related information emerged (simultaneously with, or slightly later than, in GC). Thus, cortex and amygdala both prominently reflect NaCl palatability late in their responses; CeA neurons largely respond to either palatable or aversive stimuli, while GC responses tend to reflect the entire palatability spectrum in a graded fashion.
Journal of Neuroscience 07/2012; 32(29):9999-10011. · 7.11 Impact Factor