Modern Biology
Muscle Disease Gene Identified in Fish
Bird Flu Mutation Risk
Platelets Help Tackle Bacteria
Untangling The Model Muddle
Cloning - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Unpacking the Human Genome Project
Does a Hot Mint Still Taste Cold?
Do Bald Men get all the Girls?
Why Plants Make Caffeine
Turning your Brain into Blood - How Stem Cells Work
The Microchimera Mixture
Forgetful Flies - A tale of two halves (of the brain)
The Smelly World of Mice and Men!
How animals develop from an embryo
Ricin : The Secret Assassin
Why drink Wine ?
Genetically Modified (GM) Plants
Big Fish, Little Sea
Something in the Air
What's On The Menu ?
What is the purpose of sexual reproduction?
Therapeutic Cloning, and Stem Cell Research
What is Living in my Mouth?
Genes for Bigger Brains
  Does a Hot Mint Still Taste Cold?
If you eat a chilled chilli pepper, will it: a) Burn your mouth until you beg for mercy from unknown gods ? b) Punish you with a brief case of freezer head (ice-cream headache) ? c) Feel neither hot nor a cold as the cool temperature might balance out the natural 'heat' of the pepper? If you aren't brave enough to undertake the research this question might entail, try a more delicious one instead - pop a mint in the microwave for a few seconds, then pop it in your mouth. The mint normally feels 'cool'. Will it still do so if the mint is warm?

The heat of a pepper and the iciness of a mint are no psychological freak accidents. They are real sensations with similar underlying biochemical causes. Different pieces of information from the 'outside' world create different electrical patterns in our brains. For instance, heat causes the same electrical pattern in our brains each time, so when our brains receive this hallmark pattern, they know to say, 'Oh. Hot. Don't touch.' Cool temperatures create a different pattern, so when we touch something cold, our brains go, 'Oh. Not hot. Cold.' Our brains can get a bit confused though if, say, something like a mint produces the same pattern as cold. We might know that in fact we have just started chomping away on a piece of chewing gum because we put it there ourselves, but our brains tell us, 'Gum. Is. Cold.' (My brain, at least, speaks in halting monosyllables - perhaps my readers' brains are more sophisticated.)

So how do chillis and mints produce the same electrical patterns in our brains that are also brought about by changes in temperature? One way of producing electrical impulses is by allowing ions (electrically charged atoms) to enter a cell by opening a gateway (or 'channel') in the cell membrane, changing the electrical charge within the cell with all sorts of interesting and complicated consequences. Capsaicin - the 'hot' molecule in chilli peppers - alters an 'ion channel' on nerve cells called TRP-V1, that is activated by 'hot' temperatures, causing an electrical change within the cells. Menthol in mints interacts with the same molecule (the TRP-M8 ion channel) on nerve cells that signals cool temperatures. The same pattern will be formed when the channels are opened, regardless of whether temperature change or taste causes it to open, and thus our brains are tricked into perceiving the 'wrong' sensation.

Back to the original question then: If you simultaneously feed your brain opposing electrical patterns, how can it distinguish between the two? Obviously, this is an extremely complex issue which scientists are desperately trying to unravel with much broader applicability than the somewhat facile question I put forward. In short, how and when do we become confused? And how does accessory information - such as knowing there is a mint in your mouth - direct us in our actions?

In this particular scenario, it all might depend on whether or not these TRP molecules are found on the same neurones. If the neurones our chilled chilli pepper touches only possess TRP-V1, it will detect the heat but will be unable to respond to the cool temperatures. If the nerve cell expresses both TRP-V1 and TRP-M8 ion channels, then the situation might become confusing for the brain. But as yet, the data about whether the two molecules co-exist on the same cells remains unclear. As a final note, work on these two ion channels, and molecules like them, have further implications for understanding pain and deriving therapeutics. Menthol-containing creams, for instance, can be very good at relieving muscle aches at the same time as acting as an air freshener! Certain types of pain have also been shown to stimulate heat-sensing molecules in the TRP family, which could also explain why your brain can be confused into thinking, 'Vin. Da. Loo. Bad. Pain.' when really it is just a hearty curry well-endowed with hot spices.
Bigfoot: The Nitrogen Problem
A Traveller's Guide to Bed Bugs
A spider web's strength lies in more than its silk
Thai police bust Bangkok rare wildlife 'butchers'
Castaway lizards provide insight into elusive evolutionary process
Bouquet bargains trade off for life
18 endangered dolphins spotted off Borneo: WWF
Tiny primate 'talks' in ultrasound
Steroids control gas exchange in plants
Fossil cricket reveals Jurassic love song
Rhino dies after anti-poaching treatment in S.Africa
Lions adapt to winter at Canada safari park
Invasive alien predator causes rapid declines of European ladybirds
Not the black sheep of domestic animals
Coaxing a Shy Microbe to Stand Out in a Crowd
How the zebra got its stripes
Fruit flies drawn to the sweet smell of youth
FLORA AND FAUNA Genetic Rosetta Stone unveiled in Nature
Ultraviolet protection molecule in plants yields its secrets
Indian village relocated to protect tigers
Explosive evolution need not follow mass extinctions
Plants use circadian rhythms to prepare for battle with insects
Armenia culls wolves after cold snap attacks
The Developing Genome?
Tempur-Pedic Mattress Comparison
Chromosome analyses of prickly pear cacti reveal southern glacial refugia
Poachers slaughter hundreds of elephants in Cameroon
'Founder effect' observed for first time
A Blue Future For Global Warming
Hitchhikers guide to Science
The Art of The Barbecue
Lost your bottle?
A Crossword a Day keeps the Doctor at Bay
Bio-plastics: Turning Wheat And Potatoes into Plastics
Why Don't Woodpeckers Get Brain Damage?
Protein Origami: Pop-up Books & Nature's Polymers
The Science of Parasites
Synthetic Biology: Making Life from Scratch
Flies are creatures of habit
What is Love?
How do plants develop?
What IQ Tests Can't Tell You
What is the Weirdest Experiment Ever?
Humble Honey Bee Helping National Security
Southern Right Whales
The Ocean's Cleaners
Barnacles "mussel" in
Food Date Coding Decoded
Photorhabdus luminescens: The Angel's Glow
Evolution Through the Looking Glass
I'm a Civet: Get me out of here!
No Smoke Detectors in the Sea