Problems with Taste


The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) supports basic and clinical investigations of smell and taste disorders at its laboratories in Bethesda, Md. and at universities and chemosensory research centers across the country. These chemosensory scientists are exploring how to

  • prevent the effects of aging on taste and smell
  • develop new diagnostic tests
  • understand associations between taste disorders and changes in diet and food preferences in the elderly or among people with chronic illnesses
  • improve treatment methods and rehabilitation strategies.

Studies on Aging and Taste

A recent NIDCD-funded study has shown that small variations in our genetic code can raise or lower our sensitivity to sweet tastes, which might influence a person’s desire for sweets. Scientists have also made progress in understanding how our sense of taste changes as we age. Older adults often decide what to eat based on how much they like or dislike certain tastes. Scientists are looking at how and why this happens in order to develop more effective ways to help older people cope better with taste problems.

Studies on Taste Receptors

Some of the most recent chemosensory research focuses on identifying the key receptors expressed by our taste cells and understanding how those receptors send signals to the brain. Researchers are also working to develop a better understanding of how sweet and bitter substances attach to their targeted receptors. This research holds promise for the development of sugar or salt substitutes that could help combat obesity or hypertension, as well as the development of bitter blockers that could make life-saving medicines more acceptable to children. Taste cells—as well as sensory cells that help us smell—are the only sensory cells in the human body that are regularly replaced throughout life. Researchers are exploring how and why this happens so that they might find ways to replace other damaged sensory cells.

Gut and Sweet Receptors

Scientists are gaining a better understanding of why the same receptor that helps our tongue detect sweet taste can also be found in the human gut. Recent research has shown that the sweet receptor helps the intestine to sense and absorb sugar and turn up the production of blood sugar-regulation hormones, including the hormone that regulates insulin release. Further research may help scientists develop drugs targeting the gut taste receptors to treat obesity and diabetes.

Effects of Medications on Taste

Scientists are also working to find out why some medications and medical procedures can have a harmful effect on our senses of taste and smell. They hope to develop treatments to help restore the sense of taste to people who have lost it.