While psychophysical and neurophysiological assessments of taste sensitivity to single chemical compounds have revealed some fundamental properties of gustatory processing, taste stimuli are rarely ingested in isolation. Arguably, the gustatory system was adapted to identify and report the presence of numerous chemicals ingested concurrently. To begin systematically exploring the detectability of a target stimulus in a background in rodents, we used a gustometer to train rats in a 2-response operant task to detect either NaCl (n = 8) or sucrose (n = 8) dissolved in water, and then tested the sensitivity of rats to the trained NaCl stimulus dissolved in a sucrose masker (0.3, 0.6, or 1.0 M, tested consecutively) versus sucrose, or the trained sucrose stimulus dissolved in a NaCl masker (0.04, 0.2, or 0.4 M) versus NaCl. Detection thresholds (EC50 values) were determined for the target stimulus dissolved in each concentration of the masker. Except for 0.04 M NaCl, all masker concentrations tested increased the target stimulus EC50. Target stimulus detectability decreased systematically as masker concentrations increased. The shift in liminal sensitivity for either target was similar when the threshold for the masker was considered. At least for these prototypical stimuli, it appears that the attenuating impact of a masker on the detection of a target stimulus depends on sensitivity to the masking stimulus. Further study will be required to generalize these results and extend them to more complex maskers, and to discern neural circuits involved in the detection of specific taste signals in the context of noisy backgrounds.

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