Eye glasses and hearing aids are well-established tools for restoring our senses, but how do we improve taste buds? Eating is so ingrained in our daily lives that it’s easy to take our sense of taste for granted. But accidents, illnesses and even normal aging can diminish a person’s sense of taste. Fortunately, researchers are developing technologies that can trick our tongues into tasting food differently.
What Is Taste?
Taste receptors sit on the surface of taste cells, which are clustered together in taste buds in your mouth, throat and in bumps on your tongue. These receptors are connected to a part of the brain called gustatory centers, which perceive different flavors. They detect five basic categories of taste: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory. Flavor is also influenced by the way food looks, feels and smells, but if taste buds don’t work properly, then food will taste bland. Taste is often overlooked, but our bodies developed this important sense for survival. In nature, sweet foods are good fuel, savory foods indicate protein and bitter or pungent flavors warn us that something could be poisonous or rotten.
Taste Issues and Why They Matter
Experts at the Cochrane Oral Health Group explained that there are different types of taste loss:
- people who have dysgeusia experience an altered taste sensation;
- people with hypogeusia have a reduced ability to taste one or more of the five tastes; and,
- those with ageusia cannot detect any tastes at all.
It’s much easier to tell if someone has lost their sight or hearing, but people who have a taste disorder often look perfectly healthy and can function without an obvious disability.
Every year, more than 200,000 people visit a physician for taste disorders, according to Mass Eye and Ear. The most common reason people lose their sense of taste is due to injury or illness. Traumatic brain injury, upper respiratory infections, oral health, dental issues or ear surgery can all mess with the brain’s taste centers. Taste disorders can also be caused by conditions that affect the central nervous system, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Exposure to chemicals such as insecticides can interfere with our ability to taste.
Certain drugs can cause a metallic taste in the mouth. Chemotherapy treatment can give patients a reduced sense of taste, as well. Another culprit is radiation treatment for cancers of the head and neck, Mass Eye and Ear noted. Even normal aging can weaken our taste buds, and this can become more than an inconvenience. As people get older and they gradually lose their sense of taste, they often slip into bad nutritional habits by reaching for the sweetest desserts or pouring excessive salt on their foods to enhance the flavor of food.
How to Improve Taste
Traditional treatments for taste disorders include eliminating the cause, taking medication or trying physical techniques such as magnetic stimulation and acupuncture. However, these techniques don’t always work, and worse, they can cause several undesirable side effects. High-tech solutions are currently being developed at labs around the globe.
Taste Buddy is a device that was created by scientists at City University of London. It involves a small tab placed on a person’s tongue and then attached to a processing device that stimulates the taste buds through thermal and electric signals. The technology could be embedded in utensils so that a spoon could act as fake seasoning.
According to New Scientist, a separate experiment by researchers at the National University of Singapore used a spoon embedded with electrodes to amplify the salt, sweet, sour or bitter flavor of food. They also used a “digital lollipop” to mimic different tastes. By alternating the current and making slight changes in temperature, the device can trick taste receptors into sensing flavors.
A Superhuman Future
Some people don’t actually have a taste disorder, but they want to use technology to give them superhuman senses. In fact, there are several organizations that support this ideology. Transhumanism, for example, is the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology. National Geographic explained that Neil Harbisson, the world’s first legally recognized cyborg, has an antenna implanted into his skull that gives him the ability to perceive color even though he was born with color blindness.
There are still plenty of practical and ethical issues to solve before taste-enhancing tech becomes mainstream. In the meantime, researchers are exploring how to use technology to not just improve taste buds but enhance all our senses, and some early adopters are even implanting devices in the body. Soon, being born with a silver spoon in your mouth could have a whole new meaning.