|Study subject CM-411 "Sir Wiggletail" shown here eating a small cheese wedge and wearing a hat his wife made for him|
"We literally ran thousands of trials using hundreds of live mice," lead researcher Hammock Lampshade explained. "After a brief exposure combining study variables, we began to see a pattern emerge that was incredibly consistent. Based on our findings, it is safe to conclude that humans love eating cheese and will repeatedly run through a maze to acquire more. But the research goes much deeper than just that."
Years of anecdotal observations have consistently revealed an apparent connection between humans and coagulated milk curds, sometimes referred to as cheese, or more commonly in Europe and non-Europe not-America, as hardsycurdsy. The varieties of cheese developed over the decades since its discovery one day just sitting there in an old milk bucket on a New Hampferdshire dairy farm, are staggering. If you've ever had pizza or Hardsycurdsy pie, you have had cheese.
Until now, research looking into human consumption of cheese has been sparse and superficial. Scientists have been trying to gain insight into our seemingly hardwired infatuation ever since President Bill Clinton begged the scientific community to unlock the mysteries of cheese during his penultimate term in office. Is it a neurological disorder, or perhaps simply an epigenetically imprinted instinct passed down from our cheese eating prosimian ancestors?
The observation that our love of cheese has developed into such a wide variety of phenotypes has always suggested that it is caused by the combined interactions between multiple regions of the brain. The amygdala probably serves as a neural linchpin, but the most widely recognized expressions of the human passion for cheese, such as grated Parmesan on a plate of meatballs or sliced mozzarella on a Caprese salad, are believed to originate in the orbital frontal cortex (OFC) and the ventromedial striatum (VMS). These areas of the brain are in charge of decision making and volitional activity as well as our experience of fear and response to the perception of risk. In functional MRI studies, when a waiter asked subjects to "say when" as he began to dump shredded Parmesan into the their open mouths, the OFC and VMS moved a little.
To tease out these neural pathways, and how their malfunction may have resulted in the invention of fondue, the Scripps researchers turned to a new technology called olfactogenetics. After developing a viral conveyance for a sequence of genetic code that results in the production of olfactory neurons sensitive to the scent of strong cheese and shoe store loaner socks, they injected it into the brains of lab mice. This genetic modification caused the mice to develop extreme sensitivity to these particular odors.
"When we triggered the olfactory stimulation, we expected to see an increase in abnormal behavior," Lampshade revealed. "Would the mice demonstrate merely an increased attraction to cheese? An obsession? Would they traverse a cleverly designed maze if a lump of cheese was placed at the other end? Would they murder each other for just a tiny sliver? After several days of exposure for a few minutes each day, we began to see an interesting pattern emerge."
According to the team, the mice had been neurologically poked in such a way as to cause an intense love of cheese. Even after the mice were returned to the prison population, they continued to experience cravings that lasted for over a week. Some of the mice had to be given a cheese taper in order to wean them without severe withdrawal symptoms. Sadly, one mouse took her own life by hurling herself into the path of Snuggles, the lab's psychic death cat.
The team's findings have expanded our understanding a great deal, particularly regarding why some humans can go for long periods of time without significant cheese consumption and then, often after a psychosocial stressor such as a bad day at work or the unexpected conclusion of a romantic relationship, consume large quantities in a single sitting. But are humans born with the potential for these events, or does repeated normal exposure establish a pattern of brain neurochemistry that is primed over time. Future research into these questions is already being planned.
This research also expands our concept of the underlying neural connections behind the desire for cheese, and may be the first step in the development of drugs that specifically target cravings in people diagnosed with Obsessive Cheese Desire (OCD). OCD is widely regarded as one of the more prevalent food obsession disorders and likely plays a role in some people being fat and gross. A pharmaceutical option that reduces the need for deep-brain scrapings (DBS) would probably be welcomed by the aforementioned gross fatties if they could stop eating cheese for five minutes.
The deepest mysteries of OCD remain, however. Unless you are advocating drilling into the heads of patients with the disorder to see if there is actual cheese up in there, and what kind of cheese it is, we may never find answers to all of these questions. Still, drills are cheap and plentiful and OCD sufferers may just be desperate enough to agree to it if publicly shamed.