Eastern Michigan University and the University of Louisville awarded more than $2 million NIH grant for somatosensation research

The goal is to identify orosensory neurons and determine their function in guiding food selection and feeding behavior

Concept illustration of a hand holding a fork full of foods, symbolizing the connection between taste signals and the brain

YPSILANTI –  Research that studies the sensation in the oral cavity is the subject of a grant awarded to Joseph Breza, associate professor of neuroscience at Eastern Michigan University, and Robin Krimm, professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the University of Louisville. The National Institutes on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders awarded the $2,074,256 ($462,468 year one) grant to conduct a five-year-long study on the sense of touch and how it interacts with the sense of taste. 

Joseph Breza
Joseph Breza

Somatosensation is the sense of touch, temperature, and chemesthesis, which is the sensation of spices and menthol in the oral cavity. Scientists have studied various aspects of somatosensation, including the development of the human somatosensory system. Breza and Krimm are furthering the understanding of somatosensation by exploring touch-sensitive neurons and the connection between taste signals and the brain in transgenic mice.  

“The grant seeks to understand the breadth of touch-sensitive neurons that stimulate the tongue, specifically those that wrap around taste papillae–those little red dots on your tongue which contain taste buds,” said Breza. “We think that they play an instrumental role in shaping the sensory experience of food as it pertains to texture and taste.”

The team will also investigate whether texture and taste signals from the oral cavity interact within the brainstem. According to Breza, the oral cavity is the gateway to the gut. Thus, nutrient selection and avoidance of potential toxins must first pass through the "radar" of the oral cavity. 

Robin Krimm
Robin Krimm

“We know very little about how neuron types are responsible for sending unique signals to the brain about touch, temperature, and taste information,” said Breza. “We know even less about how the brain integrates these signals to ultimately carry out tongue movements, chewing, swallowing, or gagging. Our long-term goal is to identify key orosensory neuron types and determine their function for guiding food selection and feeding behavior.”

In addition to working with Krimm, Breza is conducting the study with an interdisciplinary team of students in a customized lab space on EMU’s campus, which is aligned with EMU’s strategic mission to deliver high-performing academic programs and quality research.

Over the years, Breza has worked with psychology, biology, and chemistry faculty members. He has co-authored five peer-reviewed articles with colleague Thomas Mast, an associate professor of neurobiology at Eastern, and with several EMU undergraduate and graduate students. Over the past eight years, he has trained and worked alongside more than 26 students – many moving on to Ph.D. programs in neuroscience or medical school.

“I share my academic achievements with the faculty, staff, administration and students at EMU – their level of emotional and professional support is what has made all of this possible,” said Breza.

About Eastern Michigan University
Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves more than 15,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University's Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and its graduate school. National publications regularly recognize EMU for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University's website. To stay up to date on University news, activities and announcements, visit EMU Today.

July 27, 2022

Written by:
Melissa Thrasher

Melissa Thrasher