When you get a whiff of something that makes your mouth water, say, frying onions, how does your brain know that it smells good?
What if it suddenly didn't smell appetizing at all? And what if that brain circuitry could be adjusted so you craved steamed broccoli instead?
These are among the questions that could be addressed at an upcoming symposium at the University of Kentucky on "neuro gastronomy," the emerging science of studying what happens when smell and taste meet brain function and culinary skill.
The symposium, on Nov. 7, is the first of its kind to bring together top brain scientists and top chefs. Dr. Gordon Shepherd, the Yale University researcher who coined the term neurogastronomy a few years ago, will be the keynote speaker. He'll be joined by clinicians and neuroscientists, including Charles Spence, the Oxford professor whose book The Perfect Meal won the 2015 Prose Prize for popular science.
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The chefs are enough to make a foodie's stomach growl: Ed Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Ouita Michel of Holly Hill Inn in Midway, Jehangir Mehta of Graffiti in New York, Fred Morin of Joe Beef in Montreal, and Bob Perry, a chef and instructor at the University of Kentucky.
The idea for the symposium came from a serendipitous meeting two years ago between UK's Dan Han and Morin.
Han, the head of UK's neuro psychology service's clinical section and an ardent fan of Anthony Bourdain ("Religiously, I'm DVRing that stuff"), was in Montreal for a conference. He asked around, what's the restaurant to go to? The answer: Morin's Joe Beef.
But somehow, his 9 p.m. reservations got lost. The restaurant offered to work his party in if they were willing to wait.
By 10:30 p.m., when they finally got seated, Han was so hungry he said, "just tell the chef to surprise me."
He doesn't even remember exactly what he had.
"To be fair, it really was that good," Han said. "It is my favorite restaurant on the planet."
He does remember his appetizer, something called the Double Down, two deep-fried fois gras patties with Canadian thick-cut bacon in the middle and drizzled with maple syrup.
"It's insane," Han said.
But the lateness turned out to be a blessing.
"The chef came out, with a glass of wine, checking out the crowd, and sees us," Han said.
Morin, who co-founded the International Society of Neuro gastronomy, asked where they were from and what they were doing in Montreal. Han told him they were from Kentucky, in town for a neuroscience symposium.
"He sits himself down and starts bringing out all this top-shelf champagne, and more food, because he's a bioengineer by background and big neuroscience fan. And just read Gordon Shepherd's Neurogastronomy," Han said. "Perhaps it was the champagne and the good wine ... I'm sure it was, actually ... but we got to talking and he says, you know, we should have a big symposium about this.
"Nobody in the world had actually done this, but it makes perfect sense. In terms of what they do as culinary artisans and how the brain perceives all this as a flavor system makes perfect sense," Han said. "Fred Morin says, 'If you could get the doctors and the scientists, I could get the chefs.' That was the beginning of the concept."
The response has been enthusiastic on all sides, Han said.
"It naturally grew organically, no pun intended, into something more than clinicians and chefs meeting," he said.
UK's college of agriculture was interested because of the food-science aspects: what and how they should farm to create certain flavor profiles.
Clinicians also were eager to jump on board to explore the implications of strokes, cancer and chemotherapy, epilepsy, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis and brain trauma.
"One thing that actually unites all those clinical conditions ... is change in taste perception," Han said.
In many cases, doctors knew that taste was affected and were sympathetic, but they couldn't offer patients much remedy.
This symposium could change that.
Kapoor, who is chief of UK's headache program and director of the UK Epilepsy Care Network, said that this is about respecting the sense of smell and taste.
"We can personalize nutrition, which is not only healthy but delicious, and appreciated by the person not only in health but also in disease," Kapoor said. "That will be the ultimate holy grail for personalized medicine."
In his work with patients with epilepsy and migraines, he sees firsthand how their changes in taste and smell affect their daily lives. He said he hopes the symposium can help make attractive the ketogenic diet — an extreme diet with very high fat and very low carbs that helps young epilepsy patients avoid seizures.
"The challenge is it almost requires the individual to drink oil," Kapoor said. "How do you convert that kind of a diet into something that is palatable?"
At the seminar, the chefs will be paired with scientists and doctors and challenged to come up with a dish that might taste good to people with taste-impairing diseases. And they will be judged by real patients with cancer how have chemotherapy-induced taste changes.
Gina Mullin, whose treatment for breast cancer involves radiation and chemotherapy, said sometimes food tastes metallic; other times, she can hardly smell or taste anything. She used to love chocolate but can hardly eat it now. And her current radiation treatments make swallowing difficult, she said.
"No way I could eat a hamburger," Mullin said.
Mullin will be one of the patients judging the seminar's chef competition.
She faces chemo every three weeks "for the rest of my life, so these eating 'disorders' are not going to go away," she said. "I'm not facing this for just six weeks — I've had 55 treatments in the last three years, and I'll do that for the rest of my life."
"I'm hoping these chefs will come up with different things, that they can fix a food I could eat without any problem, without any consequences," Mullin said.
The idea of making a healthy diet seem tastier also could have major implications for battling obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Behavior modification clearly isn't cutting it, Han said. Doctors have told people to change their diets for decades, with little impact.
"Apparently, nobody's asked chefs," he said. "They are the ones who will be on the forefront of making these things delicious."