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The Human Tongue and the Sense of Taste

Updated on August 21, 2020
Alicia M Prater profile image

Alicia has a PhD in Experimental Pathology and once taught basic physiology and pathology to grad students.

The anatomy of the human tongue
The anatomy of the human tongue | Source

Anatomy of the Human Tongue

From its place in the oral cavity, the human tongue takes part in talking, eating, and swallowing. It is anchored to the back of the throat by the hyoid bone and the fleshy web called the frenum.

The tongue is attached to the mucosa at the bottom and back of the oral cavity and contains many nerves and blood vessels. The tongue is divided down the middle by a median septum. It is muscular and moves because of a collection of extrinsic and intrinsic muscles at its base.

Extrinsic muscles (attached to the mandible and hyoid bones): genioglossus, styloglossus, palatoglossus, and hyoglossus

Intrinsic muscles (within the tongue): longitudinalis superior and inferior, transverus linguae, verticalis linguae

The bumpy texture of the tongue, which is often visible, are papillae, and within them are microvilli, microscopic hairs that send messages to the nervous system. These nerve endings are stimulated by chemicals. The taste that is tasted depends entirely on which chemical signal is sent.

Photo by Arnold Reinhold
Photo by Arnold Reinhold | Source

The Sense of Taste

The surface of the tongue is covered in more than 10,000 tastebuds, small chemoreceptors discovered in the 1900s that provide us with the sense of taste by picking up on five different types of chemicals.

Taste is the brain's interpretation of chemicals, called tastants, that trigger these receptors. The basic chemical components are found in foods, toxins, and other ingested matter. Unappealing tastes are usually associated with toxins, as this is a defense mechanism preventing consumption.

The chemicals bind their particular receptors and initiate signaling that travels through the nervous system to the brain, where they are interpreted.

Chemicals Sensed by the Tongue

Ions (e.g., sodium)
Sugars, ketones, aldehydes, some amino acids
Acidic compounds
ATP and reaction byproducts
Umami (savory)*
L-glutamate/glutamic acid

*Fifth tastebud type discovered in 2002

Tastebuds and Chemoception

The tastebuds are the small, visible bumps on the tongue. They are actually nerve endings within a protective envelope on a short stalk and are also called gustatory cells.

Tastebud nerve endings conduct signals through ion channels or G-protein coupled receptors, depending on the type of chemical being detected.

The traditional flavors of salty and sour are transmitted by ion channels that generate an action potential. Saltiness is perceived when ions, including sodium, magnesium, potassium, and often calcium, are present in the saliva or on the tongue. The receptors respond more strongly to sodium, making it seem saltier. Sour is perceived when acidic compounds activate hydrogen ion channels, which depolarizes the gustatory cells. This allows the two tastes to be different, though the signals are relayed in a similar manner.

The traditional flavors of sweet and bitter are relayed by G-protein coupled signaling. Sweetness is a response to sugars and other molecules, including aldehydes, ketones, and the amino acids glycine, alanine, and serine. The bitter sensation has been found to have a genetic component; some people taste certain foods as bitter, broccoli for example, while others do not, presumably due to a difference in the number of receptors. This may explain why it was the last of the four to be added to the common list, by the Greek philosopher Democritus.

Most naturally bitter compounds are toxic, which may indicate an evolutionary component to the taste. However, some medicines, such as the anti-malarial quinine, and common foods, such as coffee, beer, unsweetened chocolate, and citrus peel, are also bitter. Recent research has found that the bitter taste may be a response to chemical reactions rather than direct ingestion of a tastant, and they are found in areas of the body outside the oral cavity.

Anatomy of the taste buds.
Anatomy of the taste buds. | Source

The Fifth Tastebud

A French chef, Escoffier, became famous in the 1800s for creating dishes that tasted like none of the four taste sensations. This new taste came from his use of veal stock. Asian cooking has used this same flavoring as a fundamental taste in their dishes for a long time. A Japanese chemist, Kikunae Ikeda, published his findings about the key chemical from seaweed broth in the journal of the Chemical Society of Tokyo in 1908. The chemical was glutamic acid.

Glutamic acid, or its basic form glutamate, activates G-protein coupled signaling. This amino acid is often found in fermented or aged foods. The taste is commonly referred to as meaty or savory, but the name given by Ikeda 100 years ago was umami. In 2002, scientists found that there is indeed a fifth tastebud, one that senses L-glutamate. They gave the flavor the official name of umami.

Nervous System Involvement

Two cranial nerves carry taste signals from the tongue through the nucleus of the solitary tract in the brainstem: VII (facial nerve) and IX (glossopharyngeal nerve). The vagus nerve (X) also carries taste information to the brain, but it gains that information from the back of the mouth.

These nerves send taste signals to the thalamus and somatic sensory cortex (the gustatory cortex), and then to the limbic system (amygdala and hypothalamus) with information on smell.

For tongue movement, the hypoglossal nerve (XII) is involved, and for pain, pressure, and other sensations on the tongue, the trigeminal nerve (V).

Blood supply to the human tongue
Blood supply to the human tongue | Source

Advanced Vocabulary for the Human Tongue

  • Macroglossia - an enlarged tongue. Some people are born with a larger tongue (congenital), sometimes it swells with trauma or other disorders, and certain oral cancers can cause it to be inflamed and swell.
  • Atrophic glossitis - loss of the bumpy texture on the tongue. Also called "bald tongue". It is usually caused by anemia or vitamin B deficiency.
  • Hairy tongue - overgrowth of the papillae. It is a harmless condition and they can be scraped off by an oral health specialist without any damage.
  • Ageusia - loss of taste/inability to taste. Very rare given the number of nerves involved.
  • Hypogeusia - reduced sense of taste. Common as a person ages.
  • Hypergeusia -enhanced sense of taste.

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2009 Alicia M Prater


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