The integration of gustatory and olfactory information is essential to the perception of flavor. Human neuroimaging experiments have pointed to the gustatory cortex (GC) as one of the areas involved in mediating flavor perception. Although GC's involvement in encoding the chemical identity and hedonic value of taste stimuli is well studied, it is unknown how single GC neurons process olfactory stimuli emanating from the mouth. In this study, we relied on multielectrode recordings to investigate how single GC neurons respond to intraorally delivered tastants and tasteless odorants dissolved in water and whether/how these two modalities converge in the same neurons. We found that GC neurons could either be unimodal, responding exclusively to taste (taste-only) or odor (odor-only), or bimodal, responding to both gustatory and olfactory stimuli. Odor responses were confirmed to result from retronasal olfaction: monitoring respiration revealed that exhalation preceded odor-evoked activity and reversible inactivation of olfactory receptors in the nasal epithelium significantly reduced responses to intraoral odorants but not to tastants. Analysis of bimodal neurons revealed that they encode palatability significantly better than the unimodal taste-only group. Bimodal neurons exhibited similar responses to palatable tastants and odorants dissolved in water. This result suggested that odorized water could be palatable. This interpretation was further supported with a brief access task, where rats avoided consuming aversive taste stimuli and consumed the palatable tastants and dissolved odorants. These results demonstrate the convergence of the chemosensory components of flavor onto single GC neurons and provide evidence for the integration of flavor with palatability coding.
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Food perception and choice depend upon the concurrent processing of olfactory and gustatory signals from the mouth. The primary gustatory cortex has been proposed to integrate chemosensory stimuli; however, no study has examined the single-unit responses to intraoral odorant presentation. Here we found that neurons in gustatory cortex can respond either exclusively to tastants, exclusively to odorants, or to both (bimodal). Several differences exist between these groups' responses; notably, bimodal neurons code palatability significantly better than unimodal neurons. This group of neurons might represent a substrate for how odorants gain the quality of tastants.