In this section, you will explore the following questions:
- In what way do smell and taste stimuli differ from other sensory stimuli?
- What are the five primary tastes that can be distinguished by humans?
- In anatomical terms why is a dog’s sense of smell more acute than a human’s?
Taste, also called gustation, and smell, also called olfaction, are the most interconnected senses in that both involve molecules of the stimulus entering the body and bonding to receptors. Smell lets an animal sense the presence of food or other animals—whether potential mates, predators, or prey—or other chemicals in the environment that can impact their survival. Similarly, the sense of taste allows animals to discriminate between types of foods. While the value of a sense of smell is obvious, what is the value of a sense of taste? Different tasting foods have different attributes, both helpful and harmful. For example, sweet-tasting substances tend to be highly caloric, which could be necessary for survival in lean times. Bitterness is associated with toxicity, and sourness is associated with spoiled food. Salty foods are valuable in maintaining homeostasis by helping the body retain water and by providing ions necessary for cells to function.
Tastes and Odors
Both taste and odor stimuli are molecules taken in from the environment. The primary tastes detected by humans are sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. The first four tastes need little explanation. The identification of umami as a fundamental taste occurred fairly recently—it was identified in 1908 by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda while he worked with seaweed broth, but it was not widely accepted as a taste that could be physiologically distinguished until many years later. The taste of umami, also known as savoriness, is attributable to the taste of the amino acid L-glutamate. In fact, monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is often used in cooking to enhance the savory taste of certain foods. What is the adaptive value of being able to distinguish umami? Savory substances tend to be high in protein.
All odors that we perceive are molecules in the air we breathe. If a substance does not release molecules into the air from its surface, it has no smell. And if a human or other animal does not have a receptor that recognizes a specific molecule, then that molecule has no smell. Humans have about 350 olfactory receptor subtypes that work in various combinations to allow us to sense about 10,000 different odors. Compare that to mice, for example, which have about 1,300 olfactory receptor types, and therefore probably sense more odors. Both odors and tastes involve molecules that stimulate specific chemoreceptors. Although humans commonly distinguish taste as one sense and smell as another, they work together to create the perception of flavor. A person’s perception of flavor is reduced if he or she has congested nasal passages.
Reception and Transduction
Olfactory neurons are bipolar neurons (neurons with two processes from the cell body). Each neuron has a single dendrite buried in the olfactory epithelium, and extending from this dendrite are 5 to 20 receptor-laden, hair-like cilia that trap odorant molecules. The sensory receptors on the cilia are proteins, and it is the variations in their amino acid chains that make the receptors sensitive to different odorants. Each olfactory sensory neuron has only one type of receptor on its cilia, and the receptors are specialized to detect specific odorants, so the bipolar neurons themselves are specialized. When an odorant binds with a receptor that recognizes it, the sensory neuron associated with the receptor is stimulated. Olfactory stimulation is the only sensory information that directly reaches the cerebral cortex, whereas other sensations are relayed through the thalamus.
A pheromone is a chemical released by an animal that affects the behavior or physiology of animals of the same species. Pheromonal signals can have profound effects on animals that inhale them, but pheromones apparently are not consciously perceived in the same way as other odors. There are several different types of pheromones, which are released in urine or as glandular secretions. Certain pheromones are attractants to potential mates, others are repellants to potential competitors of the same sex, and still others play roles in mother-infant attachment. Some pheromones can also influence the timing of puberty, modify reproductive cycles, and even prevent embryonic implantation. While the roles of pheromones in many nonhuman species are important, pheromones have become less important in human behavior over evolutionary time compared to their importance to organisms with more limited behavioral repertoires.
Pheromonal signals are sent, not to the main olfactory bulb, but to a different neural structure that projects directly to the amygdala (recall that the amygdala is a brain center important in emotional reactions, such as fear). The pheromonal signal then continues to areas of the hypothalamus that are key to reproductive physiology and behavior. While some scientists assert that the VNO is apparently functionally vestigial in humans, even though there is a similar structure located near human nasal cavities, others are researching it as a possible functional system that may, for example, contribute to synchronization of menstrual cycles in women living in close proximity.
- The pheromones secreted by a female dissolve and enter the vomeronasal organ. The dissolved molecules bind to receptors, which send a signal to the hypothalamus, which in turn sends the signal to the amygdala.
- The pheromones secreted by a female dissolve and enter the vomeronasal organ. The dissolved molecules bind to receptors, which send a signal to the amygdala, which in turn sends the signal to the hypothalamus.
- The pheromones secreted by a female dissolve and enter the amygdala. The dissolved molecules bind to receptors, which send a signal to the vomeronasal organ, which in turn sends the signal to the hypothalamus.
- The pheromones secreted by a female dissolve and enter the amygdala. The dissolved molecules bind to receptors, which send a signal to the hypothalamus, which in turn sends the signal to the vomeronasal organ.
In humans, there are five primary tastes, and each taste has only one corresponding type of receptor. Thus, like olfaction, each receptor is specific to its stimulus (tastant). Transduction of the five tastes happens through different mechanisms that reflect the molecular composition of the tastant. A salty tastant (containing NaCl) provides the sodium ions (Na+) that enter the taste neurons and excite them directly. Sour tastants are acids and belong to the thermoreceptor protein family. Binding of an acid or other sour-tasting molecule triggers a change in the ion channel and these increase hydrogen ion (H+) concentrations in the taste neurons, thus depolarizing them. Sweet, bitter, and umami tastants require a G-protein coupled receptor. These tastants bind to their respective receptors, thereby exciting the specialized neurons associated with them.
Both tasting abilities and sense of smell change with age. In humans, the senses decline dramatically by age 50 and continue to decline. A child may find a food to be too spicy, whereas an elderly person may find the same food to be bland and unappetizing.
View this animation that shows how the sense of taste works.
- Taste buds are covered in papillae.
- Saliva contains taste receptor cells.
- Papillae stimulate the hair-like endings of taste buds.
- The hair-like endings of taste buds generate nerve impulses to the brain.
Smell and Taste in the Brain
Olfactory neurons project from the olfactory epithelium to the olfactory bulb as thin, unmyelinated axons. The olfactory bulb is composed of neural clusters called glomeruli, and each glomerulus receives signals from one type of olfactory receptor, so each glomerulus is specific to one odorant. From glomeruli, olfactory signals travel directly to the olfactory cortex and then to the frontal cortex and the thalamus. Recall that this is a different path from most other sensory information, which is sent directly to the thalamus before ending up in the cortex. Olfactory signals also travel directly to the amygdala, thereafter reaching the hypothalamus, thalamus, and frontal cortex. The last structure that olfactory signals directly travel to is a cortical center in the temporal lobe structure important in spatial, autobiographical, declarative, and episodic memories. Olfaction is finally processed by areas of the brain that deal with memory, emotions, reproduction, and thought.
Taste neurons project from taste cells in the tongue, esophagus, and palate to the medulla, in the brainstem. From the medulla, taste signals travel to the thalamus and then to the primary gustatory cortex. Information from different regions of the tongue is segregated in the medulla, thalamus, and cortex.