Human taste cells maintained their key functions in a culture as a result of a recent study. These receptors continued to regenerate despite being separated from nerves in the tongue, which scientists previously thought impossible.
Why Is Taste Important?
After countless failed attempts over the years, scientists just assumed that taste cells would not regenerate on their own or even function properly if not connected to nerves in the mouth. As a result, research on the function of taste buds was limited since it could only be performed directly on the tongue of a living person.
This is significant because taste is more than just sensory pleasure. For example, chemotherapy and radiation for oral cancer often destroys a person's sense of taste, which can lead to loss of appetite, which often results in malnutrition. Malnutrition and excessive weight loss can be very dangerous, especially for someone with a weakened immune system.
Medical News Today describes tongue molecules:
Taste cells are found in papillae, the little bumps on our tongues. These cells contain the receptors that interact with chemicals in foods to allow us to sense sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. They also are among the few cells in the body with the special capacity to regenerate, with new taste cells maturing from progenitor 'stem' cells every 10-14 days.
Study on Taste Receptors
Researchers at the Monell Center tested this with rats in 2006 and found that their taste receptors could indeed be maintained in culture. They proceeded to test the theory with humans by taking tiny samples of human tongue tissue from volunteers. Not only did the cultures regenerate, they were also able to maintain their functionality for at least 7 months and even react to bitter and sweet taste molecules, according to an article in Medical News Today. This led scientists to believe that connection with nerves was in fact not necessary for taste molecules to keep their key characteristics.
This realization opens up a larger possibility for studying the sense of taste. If scientists can learn to recognize which molecules activate certain taste receptors, they can test the effectiveness of substitutes for certain food items.