Taste and Smell

Learning Objectives

  • Summarize the chemical process of taste and smell

The Chemical Senses

Taste (gustation) and smell (olfaction) are called chemical senses because both have sensory receptors that respond to molecules in the food we eat or in the air we breathe. There is a pronounced interaction between our chemical senses. For example, when we describe the flavor of a given food, we are really referring to both gustatory and olfactory properties of the food working in combination.

Taste (Gustation)

You have learned since elementary school that there are four basic groupings of taste: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Research demonstrates, however, that we have at least six taste groupings. Umami is our fifth taste. Umami is actually a Japanese word that roughly translates to yummy, and it is associated with a taste for monosodium glutamate (Kinnamon & Vandenbeuch, 2009). There is also a growing body of experimental evidence suggesting that we possess a taste for the fatty content of a given food (Mizushige, Inoue, & Fushiki, 2007).

Molecules from the food and beverages we consume dissolve in our saliva and interact with taste receptors on our tongue and in our mouth and throat. Taste buds are formed by groupings of taste receptor cells with hair-like extensions that protrude into the central pore of the taste bud (Figure 1). Taste buds have a life cycle of ten days to two weeks, so even destroying some by burning your tongue won’t have any long-term effect; they just grow right back. Taste molecules bind to receptors on this extension and cause chemical changes within the sensory cell that result in neural impulses being transmitted to the brain via different nerves, depending on where the receptor is located. Taste information is transmitted to the medulla, thalamus, and limbic system, and to the gustatory cortex, which is tucked underneath the overlap between the frontal and temporal lobes (Maffei, Haley, & Fontanini, 2012; Roper, 2013).

Illustration A shows a taste bud in an opening of the tongue, with the “tongue surface,” “taste pore,” “taste receptor cell” and “nerves” labeled. Part B is a micrograph showing taste buds on a human tongue.

Figure 1. (a) Taste buds are composed of a number of individual taste receptors cells that transmit information to nerves. (b) This micrograph shows a close-up view of the tongue’s surface. (credit a: modification of work by Jonas Töle; credit b: scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Smell (Olfaction)

Olfactory receptor cells are located in a mucous membrane at the top of the nose. Small hair-like extensions from these receptors serve as the sites for odor molecules dissolved in the mucus to interact with chemical receptors located on these extensions (Figure 2). Once an odor molecule has bound a given receptor, chemical changes within the cell result in signals being sent to the olfactory bulb: a bulb-like structure at the tip of the frontal lobe where the olfactory nerves begin. From the olfactory bulb, information is sent to regions of the limbic system and to the primary olfactory cortex, which is located very near the gustatory cortex (Lodovichi & Belluscio, 2012; Spors et al., 2013).

An illustration shows a side view of a human head and the location of the “nasal cavity,” “olfactory receptors,” and “olfactory bulb.”

Figure 2. Olfactory receptors are the hair-like parts that extend from the olfactory bulb into the mucous membrane of the nasal cavity.

Olfactory receptors are complex proteins called G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). These structures are proteins that weave back and forth across the membranes of olfactory cells seven times, forming structures outside the cell that sense odorant molecules and structures inside the cell that activate the neural message ultimately conveyed to the brain by olfactory neurons. The structures that sense odorants can be thought of as tiny binding pockets with sites that respond to active parts of molecules (e.g., carbon chains). There are about 350 functional olfactory genes in humans; each gene expresses a particular kind of olfactory receptor. All olfactory receptors of a given kind project to structures called glomeruli (paired clusters of cells found on both sides of the brain). For a single molecule, the pattern of activation across the glomeruli paints a picture of the chemical structure of the molecule. Thus, the olfactory system can identify a vast array of chemicals present in the environment. Most of the odors we encounter are actually mixtures of chemicals (e.g., bacon odor). The olfactory system creates an image for the mixture and stores it in memory just as it does for the odor of a single molecule (Shepherd, 2005).

There is tremendous variation in the sensitivity of the olfactory systems of different species. We often think of dogs as having far superior olfactory systems than our own, and indeed, dogs can do some remarkable things with their noses. There is some evidence to suggest that dogs can “smell” dangerous drops in blood glucose levels as well as cancerous tumors (Wells, 2010). Dogs’ extraordinary olfactory abilities may be due to the increased number of functional genes for olfactory receptors (between 800 and 1200), compared to the fewer than 400 observed in humans and other primates (Niimura & Nei, 2007).

Many species respond to chemical messages, known as pheromones, sent by another individual (Wysocki & Preti, 2004). Pheromonal communication often involves providing information about the reproductive status of a potential mate. So, for example, when a female rat is ready to mate, she secretes pheromonal signals that draw attention from nearby male rats. Pheromonal activation is actually an important component in eliciting sexual behavior in the male rat (Furlow, 1996, 2012; Purvis & Haynes, 1972; Sachs, 1997). There has also been a good deal of research (and controversy) about pheromones in humans (Comfort, 1971; Russell, 1976; Wolfgang-Kimball, 1992; Weller, 1998).

Glossary

olfactory bulb: bulb-like structure at the tip of the frontal lobe, where the olfactory nerves begin
olfactory receptor: sensory cell for the olfactory system
pheromone: chemical message sent by another individual
taste bud: grouping of taste receptor cells with hair-like extensions that protrude into the central pore of the taste bud
umami: taste for monosodium glutamate