Behavioral Regulation of the Milieu Interne in Man and Rat

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Science  06 Sep 1974:
Vol. 185, Issue 4154, pp. 824-831
DOI: 10.1126/science.185.4154.824


In regulating the internal homeostatic environment mammals, by necessity, employ behavioral strategies that differ from the tactics used in coping with contingencies in the external environment. When an animal consumes a meal, the palatability of that meal is automatically adjusted in accordance with the ultimate internal effects of that meal. If the meal causes toxicosis, the animal acquires an aversion for the taste of the meal; conversely, if recuperation follows ingestion of the meal, the taste of that meal is enhanced. Unlike the learning that occurs when externally referred visual and auditory signals are followed by punishment in the form of peripheral pain or reward in the form of food in the mouth, conditioning to the homeostatic effects of food can occur in a single trial and rarely requires more than three to five trials, even though the ultimate effects of the meal are delayed for hours. Paradoxically, the animal need not be aware of the ultimate internal effect in the same sense that it is aware of external contingencies. For example, an aversion can be acquired even if the animal is unconscious when the agent of illness is administered. Thus, the way in which food-effects are stored in memory may be fundamentally different from the way in which memories of specific time-space strategies devised for external contingencies are stored. This separation of function is indicated by limbic lesions which disrupt conditioning to a buzzer that is followed by shock and facilitate conditioning to a taste that is followed by illness.

Operationally speaking, one can describe both aversion conditioning and buzzer-shock conditioning in the spacetime associationistic terms of classical conditioning. However, psychologically speaking, one must realize that in aversion conditioning the animal does not act as if it were acquiring an "if-then" strategy. It acts as if a hedonic shift, or a change in the incentive value of the flavor were taking place. Such hedonic shifts are critical in regulation of the internal milieu. When an animal is in need of calories, food tends to be more palatable; as the caloric deficit is restored, food becomes less palatable. If the animal's body temperature is below optimum, a warm stimulus applied to the skin is pleasant. When body temperature is too high, the converse is true. In this way, homeostatic states monitored by internal receptors produce changes in the incentive values of external stimuli sensed by the peripheral receptors, and guide feeding behavior.

In mammals at least, the gustatory system, which provides sensory control of feeding, sends fibers to the nucleus solitarius. This brainstem relay station also receives fibers from the viscera and the internal monitors of the area postrema. Ascending fibers bifurcate at the level of the pons and project toward the feeding areas of the hypothalamus and the cortex. The olfactory system which primarily projects to the limbic system does not play a primary role in adjusting food incentives. Rather, it plays a secondary role in the activation of feeding, as do other external sensory systems.

This specialized conditioning mechanism, which specifically adjusts gustatory hedonic values through delayed visceral feedback, is widespread among animals, including man and rat. These two species are remarkably similar in their thresholds and preferences for gustatory stimuli. The behavioral similarities are based on the animals' having similar gustatory systems, similar convergence of gustatory and internal afferents to the nucleus solitarius, and similar midbrain regulatory mechanisms. Thus, it is not surprising that the feeding of obese rats with internal hypothalamic damage resembles the feeding of obese human beings insensitive to the internal signs of this caloric state. Obviously, man has a highly specialized form of symbolic communication and the rat does not, yet man's cognitive specialization does not prevent him from developing aversions to food consumed before illness even when he knows that his illness was not caused by food (43).