Research on the chemical senses is conducted by two laboratories in the Division of Biosciences that study the sense of taste. Taste influences what we eat, and thus this sense has obvious consequences for health. Like many other organisms, humans have innate preferences for sweet and salty tastes that signal foods with nutrient content, but have innate distaste for bitter substances, which are often toxic. The ready availability of foods with highly preferred tastes is a likely contributing factor to the “obesity epidemic” in the United States and the increased incidence of heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. Thus, an understanding of how taste interacts with homeostatic systems governing food intake may provide new therapeutic approaches. Similarly, learning how to promote appetite and avoid food aversions and weight loss associated with cancer and other debilitating diseases represents yet another medical challenge.
Oral conditions such as burning mouth syndrome or the removal of 3rd molars can impact the sense of taste. Taste also contributes to our quality of life. People spend countless hours and financial resources eating and exploring new cuisines. Large multinational conglomerates are actively pursuing substitutes for salt and sugar; the pharmaceutical industry is interested in blunting the bitter taste associated with many oral medicines. These medical and health related concerns are recognized by the National Institutes of health and fund basic research in the chemical senses. In the College of Dentistry funded projects include those exploring peripheral transduction mechanisms used by taste receptor cells. Other funded projects are exploring central neural coding of taste and the central pathways, circuits through which taste influences decisions to eat.