(October 4th, 2017) You don’t like cheese? Why ask? This is actually a scientific question. And because it is one that first makes you laugh and then think, it has been honoured with the infamous Ig Nobel Prize this year.
For the 27th time, the Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded during the usual pomp and circumstance ceremony in Harvard's Sanders Theatre. More than 1,000 spectators saw genuine Nobel Prize winners hand the trophies to this year's proud winners. Jean-Pierre Royet and colleagues from the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center, for instance, won the Medizine Prize “for using advanced brain-scanning technology to measure the extent to which some people are disgusted by cheese”.
Although the Ig Nobel Prizes have gained in importance and visibility, the winners themselves are often surprised. “We didn’t know of the Ig Nobel Prize before we actually received them,” Royet admits. He first received an email from the Ig Nobel office and was then contacted by phone a day or two later. “My first thought was that it was a joke,” he remembers with amusement. Because the Ig Nobels are for fun, every winner can decline the prize. Royet admits to having considered this option initially but, thinking about it, he changed his mind, “I like to demystify research, as long as it is made in a good way, and so I finally accepted.”
Royet and his colleagues study the neural networks associated with food aversion in humans. This is much more difficult than in animals. “It is very easy to perform experiments on food aversion in animals because you can make the animal ill after it has eaten a specific food, and you can then perform behavioural and/or functional measures,” he explains. “However, it is not ethically possible to artificially make a human volunteer ill.” Therefore, the scientists compiled a survey to find the type of food, which most people disliked, and supposed that this food was then aversive for them. “We surprisingly found that cheese satisfied this criterion.”
The country for this study was perfect: France, a nation with a magnificent cheese tradition. Royet thinks that they “got the Ig Nobel Prize because for American people it is probably extraordinary to study disgust for cheese. For them, France evokes cheese that is smelly.” Still, he believes his study's results wouldn't be different in other countries. “There is nothing special with French people. I suppose we can find the same results in other European countries, such as Iceland, Greece, Germany, Finland, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, … and also the USA.” In contrast, he points out that it would not work in countries, where people do not eat cheese or other dairy products, such as the Middle Eastern and southern Asian groups.
So, what did the French neuroscientists do? They had their test subjects look at or smell cheese, while being monitored in an fMRI scanner. In volunteers, who dislike or do not want to eat cheese, two small areas of the reward/aversion circuit are more activated, compared to people without cheese aversion. In addition, the cheese-dislike group did not show activity in a brain region that is usually activated in hungry people, when they see or smell food. Thus, the brain is differentially activated, depending on whether you like or dislike a certain food. Royet interprets, “Aversive food stimuli seem to warn individuals by saying: attention, this food is dangerous; you must not eat it.”
So what can we do with these results? Can we “treat” disgust against cheese? “No, these results do not allow us to 'treat' disgust against cheese. It is fundamental research,” Royet makes clear.
With all this amusing and inspiring research, Royet and his team fit perfectly into the Ig Nobel world. Sadly, they were unable to accept the trophy personally and unfortunately missed out on the glorious award ceremony at Harvard. Royet explains that the ceremony occurred when all of them were busy. “And secondly, we must pay expenses related to the trip ourselves, so the organisers suggested we sent a video instead.”