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Long Beach researchers discover taste is not dependent on the tongue

A rare condition leaving people born without a tongue may play a key role in taste rehabilitation.

Kristin+Mahood+and+Long+Wang+presenting+their+research+at+the+Food+%26+Nutrition+Convention+%26+Expo+10%2F23.
Kristin Mahood and Long Wang presenting their research at the Food & Nutrition Convention & Expo 10/23.

Kristin Mahood and Long Wang presenting their research at the Food & Nutrition Convention & Expo 10/23.

Courtesy of Long Wang Twitter

Courtesy of Long Wang Twitter

Kristin Mahood and Long Wang presenting their research at the Food & Nutrition Convention & Expo 10/23.

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What food or drink would you miss the most if you didn’t have a tongue? It turns out, there’s no need to worry. According to a study conducted by Cal State Long Beach researchers, the human body is able to recognize complex flavors without one.

Isolated Congenital Aglossia is a rare condition where a person is born without a tongue, which affects their ability to taste. The research involved a wine tasting survey to assess how individuals lacking tongues perceive flavor.

“If we could figure out how people without a tongue could taste without ever using the tongue, we could help those who were born with a tongue but for some reason lost it,” said Long Wang, assistant professor of nutrition at the university.

Beginning in November of 2015 as a thesis project for Family and Sciences lecturer Kristin Mahood, the findings of the study were published July 17 in the Journal of Communication Disorders, Deaf Studies and Hearing Aids. Mahood was aided by Wang.

“Taste buds are not only found on the surface of our tongues, we do have a certain number of taste buds on our soft palate,” Wang said. “The question is whether it’s enough to ensure a similar tasting experience.”

The study included one reference subject with the birth condition and two other participants, one an inexperienced wine taster and the other a trained sommelier, or wine expert. The reference subject, a 46-year-old female, is one of 12 documented cases of the condition since 1718, making its prevalence difficult to record.

“It’s estimated that about 10 people in the world are known to have it,” Mahood said.

The other volunteers were then selected based off sex and gender that matched the subject to eliminate any variables that might affect results.

Approved by Long Beach State’s Institutional Review Board, the survey took place at a local wine tasting bar. Each participant was presented with five different types of wine with three samples of each, totaling fifteen samples. The participants were blindfolded and presented the wines at random.

In order to measure each participant’s sense of taste, the researchers developed their own instrument for data collection, referred to as the Nose and Palate Survey. The model was heavily influenced by the Court of Master Sommeliers Deductive Tasting Format, a guide used in wine tasting, and validated by a sommelier who did not partake in the study.

“There have been taste tests with individual solutions, but never been a whole food or beverage tasting,” Mahood said. “We wanted to try something like that because wine already has its own tasting protocol for the sommeliers.”

Before conducting the taste survey, the reference subject had partaken in previous studies to assess if she had the ability to taste.

“We concluded that someone without a tongue can enjoy wine just like any other naive wine taster while the trained sommelier perceived wine flavors differently,” said Mahood. The results found that the subject recorded flavor perceptions similar to an average wine taster. Following the findings, it has still yet to be discovered to what extent the subject is able to perceive flavor without a tongue.

Wang and Mahood plan to take their research even farther in the spring of 2018. The follow-up study will test the threshold of taste for the reference subject.

“We are interested in finding out if she needs higher stimulation to be able to sense taste,” Wang said. “The long-term goal is to apply these findings to help other populations who suffer from decline in the ability to taste.”

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