Science

Taste, a complex meaning – Sciences et Avenir

This article comes from the journal Sciences et Avenir – Les Indispensables n ° 205 of April / June 2021.

When we talk about taste, we imply several different things: on the one hand the sensory modality linked to the gustatory systems, which perceives the flavors thanks to the taste buds on our tongue and our palate, on the other hand the sensation of taste, which is also based in various other sensory systems: smell, touch, the sensation of heat ”, explains Moustafa Bensafi, a specialist in smell at the Center for Research in Neuroscience in Lyon.

We smell as much as we taste

Tasting is therefore a simple story of molecules and receptors. The former are linked to the latter as they correspond to one of the great families of flavors: acid, sweet, bitter, salty and umami, a flavor highly appreciated in Japan and little represented in French cuisine. But this complex experience of taste also associates the perception of the fragrant volatile molecules that rise up the palate and up to the roof of the nasal cavity. We smell as much as we taste!

Up to 400 genes encode functional olfactory receptors in humans: in the human genome, this is the largest family. And that’s not all: the tingling or spicy sensations, such as those caused by chili peppers, are also associated with taste. They are picked up by the trigeminal system that innervates the nasal cavity. This explains the complexity of our olfactory and, therefore, taste perceptions.

The double penalty: loss of taste and smell

If the Covid-19 virus can manifest as a cold by blocking the nose, it can also infect the cells of the nasal wall and thus devastate the area where the volatile molecules are captured. It can also infect taste cells, and the penalty is twofold: loss of taste and smell, agnosia, and anosmia. These symptoms are believed to affect up to 80% of Europeans with the disease.

Fortunately, these cells grow back. And most people regain satisfactory taste and smell, sometimes with the help of olfactory rehabilitation (see video above).

By Agnès Vernet

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