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Neural responses to MSG in rats and monkeys

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The issue that has divided opinion over the status of umami as a basic taste quality is its relationship with the taste of sodium salt. That is addressed here, informed by electrophysiological data from the hindbrain of rats and from the forebrain of macaques. In multidimensional spaces, generated from patterns of neural activity evoked in the rat's hindbrain by an array of taste stimuli, MSG does indeed lie near the position of NaCl. Yet when sodium transduction is disrupted by the lingual application of amiloride, the impact on the taste response to MSG is minor, and the pattern of activity it elicits is unaltered. Thus, MSG generates a taste quality that transcends saltiness, one that survives even as saltiness is compromised. This conclusion is in accord with the independent transduction mechanisms ascribed to MSG. In the macaque's taste system, MSG is an effective stimulus with a dynamic range of 0.009 to 0.300 M. Approximately one-third of the taste cells at each synaptic relay respond to MSG at 0.1 M. MSG evoked a neural response profile in primary taste cortex that correlated quite well with that elicited by NaCl, in accord with the pronounced salty component humans report for its taste. At succeeding synaptic relays, however, that relationship deteriorated, becoming increasingly distant and labile. At higher-order gustatory levels, MSG evoked a profile that was no more similar to those of the basic stimuli than they are to each other. This implies that MSG warrants independent status as a basic taste stimulus, serving as the prototype for the umami quality.


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