Taste Buds and Gustatory Transduction: A Functional Perspective
- Alan C. SpectorAlan C. SpectorDepartment of Psychology and Program in Neuroscience, Florida State University
- and Susan P. TraversSusan P. TraversDepartment of Biosciences, College of Dentistry, Ohio State University
Everything a person swallows must pass a final chemical analysis by the sensory systems of the mouth; of these, the gustatory system is cardinal. Gustation can be heuristically divided into three basic domains of function: sensory-discriminative (quality and intensity), motivational/affective (promote or deter ingestion), and physiological (e.g., salivation and insulin release). The signals from the taste buds, transmitted to the brain through the sensory branches of cranial nerves VII (facial), IX (glossopharyngeal), and X (vagal), subserve these primary functions. Taste buds are collections of 50–100 cells that are distributed in various fields in the tongue, soft palate, and throat. There are three types of cells that have been identified in taste buds based on their morphological and cytochemical expression profiles. Type II cells express specialized G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCR or GPR) on their apical membranes, which protrude through a break in the oral epithelial lining called the taste pore, that are responsible for the sensing of sweeteners (via the taste type 1 receptor (T1R) 2 + T1R3), amino acids (via the T1R1+T1R3), and bitter ligands (via the taste type 2 receptors (T2Rs)). Type III cells are critical for the sensing of acids via the otopetrin-1 (Otop-1) ion channel. The sensing of sodium, in at least rodents, occurs through the epithelial sodium channel (ENaC), but the exact composition of this channel and the type of taste cell type in which the functional version resides remains unclear. It is controversial whether Type I cells, which have been characterized as glial-like, are involved in sodium transduction or play any taste signaling role. For the most part, receptors for different stimulus classes (e.g., sugars vs. bitter ligands) are not co-expressed, providing significant early functionally related segregation of signals. There remains a persistent search for yet to be identified receptors that may contribute to some functions associated with stimuli representing the so-called basic taste qualities—sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami—as well as unconventional stimuli such as fatty acids (in addition to cluster of differentiation-36 (CD-36), GPR40, and GPR120) and maltodextrins. The primary neurotransmitter in taste receptor cells is ATP, which is released through a voltage-gated heteromeric channel consisting of the calcium homeostasis modulator 1 and 3 (CALHM1/3) and binds with P2X2/X3 receptors on apposed afferent fibers. Serotonin released from Type III cells has been implicated as an additional neurotransmitter, binding with HT3a receptors, and possibly playing a role in acid taste (which is sour to humans). Taste bud cells undergo complete turnover about every two weeks. Although there remains much to be understood about the operations of the taste bud, perhaps the one very clear principle that emerges is that the organization of signals transmitted to the brain is not random and arbitrary to be decoded by complex algorithms in the circuits of the central gustatory system. Rather, the transmission of taste information from the periphery is highly ordered.