Sensory Perception: Taste and Olfaction

Learning Objectives

  • Describe different types of sensory receptors
  • Describe the structures responsible for the special senses of taste and smell
  • Distinguish how different tastes are transduced

A major role of sensory receptors is to help us learn about the environment around us, or about the state of our internal environment. Stimuli from varying sources, and of different types, are received and changed into the electrochemical signals of the nervous system. This occurs when a stimulus changes the cell membrane potential of a sensory neuron. The stimulus causes the sensory cell to produce an action potential that is relayed into the central nervous system (CNS), where it is integrated with other sensory information—or sometimes higher cognitive functions—to become a conscious perception of that stimulus. The central integration may then lead to a motor response.

Describing sensory function with the term sensation or perception is a deliberate distinction. Sensation is the activation of sensory receptor cells at the level of the stimulus. Perception is the central processing of sensory stimuli into a meaningful pattern. Perception is dependent on sensation, but not all sensations are perceived. Receptors are the cells or structures that detect sensations. A receptor cell is changed directly by a stimulus. A transmembrane protein receptor is a protein in the cell membrane that mediates a physiological change in a neuron, most often through the opening of ion channels or changes in the cell signaling processes. Transmembrane receptors are activated by chemicals called ligands.

For example, a molecule in food can serve as a ligand for taste receptors. Other transmembrane proteins, which are not accurately called receptors, are sensitive to mechanical or thermal changes. Physical changes in these proteins increase ion flow across the membrane, and can generate an action potential or a graded potential in the sensory neurons.

Sensory Receptors

Stimuli in the environment activate specialized receptor cells in the peripheral nervous system. Different types of stimuli are sensed by different types of receptor cells. Receptor cells can be classified into types on the basis of three different criteria: cell type, position, and function. Receptors can be classified structurally on the basis of cell type and their position in relation to stimuli they sense. They can also be classified functionally on the basis of the transduction of stimuli, or how the mechanical stimulus, light, or chemical changed the cell membrane potential.

Structural Receptor Types

The cells that interpret information about the environment can be either (1) a neuron that has a free nerve ending, with dendrites embedded in tissue that would receive a sensation; (2) a neuron that has an encapsulated ending in which the sensory nerve endings are encapsulated in connective tissue that enhances their sensitivity; or (3) a specialized receptor cell, which has distinct structural components that interpret a specific type of stimulus (Figure 1).

This Figure shows the different types of receptors. The top panel shows a neuron receptor with free receptor endings, the middle panel shows a neuron receptor with encapsulated nerve endings, and the bottom panel shows a specialized receptor cell.

Figure 1. Receptor Classification by Cell Type. Receptor cell types can be classified on the basis of their structure. Sensory neurons can have either (a) free nerve endings or (b) encapsulated endings. Photoreceptors in the eyes, such as rod cells, are examples of (c) specialized receptor cells. These cells release neurotransmitters onto a bipolar cell, which then synapses with the optic nerve neurons.

The pain and temperature receptors in the dermis of the skin are examples of neurons that have free nerve endings. Also located in the dermis of the skin are lamellated corpuscles, neurons with encapsulated nerve endings that respond to pressure and touch. The cells in the retina that respond to light stimuli are an example of a specialized receptor, a photoreceptor.

Another way that receptors can be classified is based on their location relative to the stimuli. An exteroceptor is a receptor that is located near a stimulus in the external environment, such as the somatosensory receptors that are located in the skin. An interoceptor is one that interprets stimuli from internal organs and tissues, such as the receptors that sense the increase in blood pressure in the aorta or carotid sinus. Finally, a proprioceptor is a receptor located near a moving part of the body, such as a muscle, that interprets the positions of the tissues as they move.

Functional Receptor Types

A third classification of receptors is by how the receptor transduces stimuli into membrane potential changes. Stimuli are of three general types. Some stimuli are ions and macromolecules that affect transmembrane receptor proteins when these chemicals diffuse across the cell membrane. Some stimuli are physical variations in the environment that affect receptor cell membrane potentials. Other stimuli include the electromagnetic radiation from visible light.

For humans, the only electromagnetic energy that is perceived by our eyes is visible light. Some other organisms have receptors that humans lack, such as the heat sensors of snakes, the ultraviolet light sensors of bees, or magnetic receptors in migratory birds. Receptor cells can be further categorized on the basis of the type of stimuli they transduce. Chemical stimuli can be interpreted by a chemoreceptor that interprets chemical stimuli, such as an object’s taste or smell. Osmoreceptors respond to solute concentrations of body fluids. Additionally, pain is primarily a chemical sense that interprets the presence of chemicals from tissue damage, or similar intense stimuli, through a nociceptor.

Physical stimuli, such as pressure and vibration, as well as the sensation of sound and body position (balance), are interpreted through a mechanoreceptor. Another physical stimulus that has its own type of receptor is temperature, which is sensed through a thermoreceptor that is either sensitive to temperatures above (heat) or below (cold) normal body temperature.

Sensory Modalities

Ask anyone what the senses are, and they are likely to list the five major senses—taste, smell, touch, hearing, and sight. However, these are not all of the senses. The most obvious omission from this list is balance. Also, what is referred to simply as touch can be further subdivided into pressure, vibration, stretch, and hair-follicle position, on the basis of the type of mechanoreceptors that perceive these touch sensations. Other overlooked senses include temperature perception by thermoreceptors and pain perception by nociceptors. Within the realm of physiology, senses can be classified as either general or specific.

general sense is one that is distributed throughout the body and has receptor cells within the structures of other organs. Mechanoreceptors in the skin, muscles, or the walls of blood vessels are examples of this type. General senses often contribute to the sense of touch, as described above, or to proprioception (body movement) and kinesthesia (body movement), or to a visceral sense, which is most important to autonomic functions.

special sense is one that has a specific organ devoted to it, namely the eye, inner ear, tongue, or nose. Each of the senses is referred to as a sensory modality. Modality refers to the way that information is encoded, which is similar to the idea of transduction. The main sensory modalities can be described on the basis of how each is transduced. The chemical senses are taste and smell. The general sense that is usually referred to as touch includes chemical sensation in the form of nociception, or pain. Pressure, vibration, muscle stretch, and the movement of hair by an external stimulus, are all sensed by mechanoreceptors. Hearing and balance are also sensed by mechanoreceptors. Finally, vision involves the activation of photoreceptors.

Listing all the different sensory modalities, which can number as many as 17, involves separating the five major senses into more specific categories, or submodalities, of the larger sense. An individual sensory modality represents the sensation of a specific type of stimulus. For example, the general sense of touch, which is known as somatosensation, can be separated into light pressure, deep pressure, vibration, itch, pain, temperature, or hair movement.

Gustation (Taste)

Only a few recognized submodalities exist within the sense of taste, or gustation. Until recently, only four tastes were recognized: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Research at the turn of the 20th century led to recognition of the fifth taste, umami, during the mid-1980s. Umami is a Japanese word that means “delicious taste,” and is often translated to mean savory. Very recent research has suggested that there may also be a sixth taste for fats, or lipids.

Gustation is the special sense associated with the tongue. The surface of the tongue, along with the rest of the oral cavity, is lined by a stratified squamous epithelium. Raised bumps called papillae (singular = papilla) contain the structures for gustatory transduction. There are four types of papillae, based on their appearance (Figure 2): circumvallate, foliate, filiform, and fungiform. Within the structure of the papillae are taste buds that contain specialized gustatory receptor cells for the transduction of taste stimuli. These receptor cells are sensitive to the chemicals contained within foods that are ingested, and they release neurotransmitters based on the amount of the chemical in the food. Neurotransmitters from the gustatory cells can activate sensory neurons in the facial, glossopharyngeal, and vagus cranial nerves.

The left panel shows the image of a tongue with callouts that show magnified views of different parts of the tongue. The top right panel shows a micrograph of the circumvallate papilla, and the bottom right panel shows the structure of a taste bud.

Figure 2. The Tongue. The tongue is covered with small bumps, called papillae, which contain taste buds that are sensitive to chemicals in ingested food or drink. Different types of papillae are found in different regions of the tongue. The taste buds contain specialized gustatory receptor cells that respond to chemical stimuli dissolved in the saliva. These receptor cells activate sensory neurons that are part of the facial and glossopharyngeal nerves. LM × 1600. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)

Salty taste is simply the perception of sodium ions (Na+) in the saliva. When you eat something salty, the salt crystals dissociate into the component ions Na+ and Cl, which dissolve into the saliva in your mouth. The Na+ concentration becomes high outside the gustatory cells, creating a strong concentration gradient that drives the diffusion of the ion into the cells. The entry of Na+ into these cells results in the depolarization of the cell membrane and the generation of a receptor potential.

Sour taste is the perception of H+ concentration. Just as with sodium ions in salty flavors, these hydrogen ions enter the cell and trigger depolarization. Sour flavors are, essentially, the perception of acids in our food. Increasing hydrogen ion concentrations in the saliva (lowering saliva pH) triggers progressively stronger graded potentials in the gustatory cells. For example, orange juice—which contains citric acid—will taste sour because it has a pH value of approximately 3. Of course, it is often sweetened so that the sour taste is masked. The first two tastes (salty and sour) are triggered by the cations Na+ and H+. The other tastes result from food molecules binding to a G protein–coupled receptor. A G protein signal transduction system ultimately leads to depolarization of the gustatory cell.

The sweet taste is the sensitivity of gustatory cells to the presence of glucose dissolved in the saliva. Other monosaccharides such as fructose, or artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (NutraSweet™), saccharine, or sucralose (Splenda™) also activate the sweet receptors. The affinity for each of these molecules varies, and some will taste sweeter than glucose because they bind to the G protein–coupled receptor differently.

Bitter taste is similar to sweet in that food molecules bind to G protein–coupled receptors. However, there are a number of different ways in which this can happen because there are a large diversity of bitter-tasting molecules. Some bitter molecules depolarize gustatory cells, whereas others hyperpolarize gustatory cells. Likewise, some bitter molecules increase G protein activation within the gustatory cells, whereas other bitter molecules decrease G protein activation. The specific response depends on which molecule is binding to the receptor. One major group of bitter-tasting molecules are alkaloids. Alkaloids are nitrogen-containing molecules that often have a basic pH. Alkaloids are commonly found in bitter-tasting plant products, such as coffee, hops (in beer), tannins (in wine), tea, and aspirin. By containing toxic alkaloids, the plant is less susceptible to microbe infection and less attractive to herbivores. Therefore, the function of bitter taste may primarily be related to stimulating the gag reflex to avoid ingesting poisons. Because of this, many bitter foods that are normally ingested are often combined with a sweet component to make them more palatable (cream and sugar in coffee, for example). The highest concentration of bitter receptors appear to be in the posterior tongue, where a gag reflex could still spit out poisonous food.

The taste known as umami is often referred to as the savory taste. Like sweet and bitter, it is based on the activation of G protein–coupled receptors by a specific molecule. The molecule that activates this receptor is the amino acid L-glutamate. Therefore, the umami flavor is often perceived while eating protein-rich foods. Not surprisingly, dishes that contain meat are often described as savory.

Once the gustatory cells are activated by the taste molecules, they release neurotransmitters onto the dendrites of sensory neurons. These neurons are part of the facial and glossopharyngeal cranial nerves, as well as a component within the vagus nerve dedicated to the gag reflex. The facial nerve connects to taste buds in the anterior third of the tongue. The glossopharyngeal nerve connects to taste buds in the posterior two thirds of the tongue. The vagus nerve connects to taste buds in the extreme posterior of the tongue, verging on the pharynx, which are more sensitive to noxious stimuli such as bitterness.

Watch this video to learn about Dr. Danielle Reed of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who became interested in science at an early age because of her sensory experiences. She recognized that her sense of taste was unique compared with other people she knew. Now, she studies the genetic differences between people and their sensitivities to taste stimuli.

In the video, there is a brief image of a person sticking out their tongue, which has been covered with a colored dye. This is how Dr. Reed is able to visualize and count papillae on the surface of the tongue. People fall into two groups known as “tasters” and “non-tasters” based on the density of papillae on their tongue, which also indicates the number of taste buds. Non-tasters can taste food, but they are not as sensitive to certain tastes, such as bitterness. Dr. Reed discovered that she is a non-taster, which explains why she perceived bitterness differently than other people she knew. Are you very sensitive to tastes? Can you see any similarities among the members of your family?

Olfaction (Smell)

Like taste, the sense of smell, or olfaction, is also responsive to chemical stimuli. The olfactory receptor neurons are located in a small region within the superior nasal cavity (Figure 3). This region is referred to as the olfactory epithelium and contains bipolar sensory neurons. Each olfactory sensory neuron has dendrites that extend from the apical surface of the epithelium into the mucus lining the cavity. As airborne molecules are inhaled through the nose, they pass over the olfactory epithelial region and dissolve into the mucus. These odorant molecules bind to proteins that keep them dissolved in the mucus and help transport them to the olfactory dendrites. The odorant–protein complex binds to a receptor protein within the cell membrane of an olfactory dendrite. These receptors are G protein–coupled, and will produce a graded membrane potential in the olfactory neurons.

The axon of an olfactory neuron extends from the basal surface of the epithelium, through an olfactory foramen in the cribriform plate of the ethmoid bone, and into the brain. The group of axons called the olfactory tract connect to the olfactory bulb on the ventral surface of the frontal lobe. From there, the axons split to travel to several brain regions. Some travel to the cerebrum, specifically to the primary olfactory cortex that is located in the inferior and medial areas of the temporal lobe. Others project to structures within the limbic system and hypothalamus, where smells become associated with long-term memory and emotional responses. This is how certain smells trigger emotional memories, such as the smell of food associated with one’s birthplace. Smell is the one sensory modality that does not synapse in the thalamus before connecting to the cerebral cortex. This intimate connection between the olfactory system and the cerebral cortex is one reason why smell can be a potent trigger of memories and emotion.

Panel A of this image shows the side view of a person’s face with a cup containing a beverage underneath the nose. The image shows how the aroma of the beverage passes through the nasal cavity. Panel B shows a micrograph of the nasal cavity. Panel C shows a detailed ultrastructure of the olfactory bulb.

Figure 3. The Olfactory System (a) The olfactory system begins in the peripheral structures of the nasal cavity. (b) Axons of the olfactory receptor neurons project through the cribriform plate of the ethmoid bone and synapse with the neurons of the olfactory bulb (tissue source: simian).LM × 812. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012) (c) The olfactory receptor neurons are within the olfactory epithelium.

The nasal epithelium, including the olfactory cells, can be harmed by airborne toxic chemicals. Therefore, the olfactory neurons are regularly replaced within the nasal epithelium, after which the axons of the new neurons must find their appropriate connections in the olfactory bulb. These new axons grow along the axons that are already in place in the cranial nerve.

Disorders of the Olfactory System: Anosmia

Blunt force trauma to the face, such as that common in many car accidents, can lead to the loss of the olfactory nerve, and subsequently, loss of the sense of smell. This condition is known as anosmia. When the frontal lobe of the brain moves relative to the ethmoid bone, the olfactory tract axons may be sheared apart. Professional fighters often experience anosmia because of repeated trauma to face and head. In addition, certain pharmaceuticals, such as antibiotics, can cause anosmia by killing all the olfactory neurons at once. If no axons are in place within the olfactory nerve, then the axons from newly formed olfactory neurons have no guide to lead them to their connections within the olfactory bulb. There are temporary causes of anosmia, as well, such as those caused by inflammatory responses related to respiratory infections or allergies. Loss of the sense of smell can result in food tasting bland. A person with an impaired sense of smell may require additional spice and seasoning levels for food to be tasted. Anosmia may also be related to some presentations of mild depression, because the loss of enjoyment of food may lead to a general sense of despair. The ability of olfactory neurons to replace themselves decreases with age, leading to age-related anosmia. This explains why some elderly people salt their food more than younger people do. However, this increased sodium intake can increase blood volume and blood pressure, increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases in the elderly.