Cancer Survivors’ Tongues Less Sensitive to Tastes Than Those of Healthy Peers

Summary: Changes in taste perception can for years following chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments for cancer, a new study reports. Cancer survivors reported less sensitivity to bitter, sweet, and salty tastes compared to those who never received a cancer diagnosis. Taste buds on the tip of the tongue are most affected.

Source: University of Illinois

Most survivors of squamous cell head and neck cancers report that their sense of taste is dulled, changed or lost during radiation treatment, causing them to lose interest in eating and diminishing their quality of life.

In a study of taste and smell dysfunction with 40 cancer survivors, scientists at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found that the tips of these individuals’ tongues were significantly less sensitive to bitter, salty or sweet tastes than peers in the control group who had never been diagnosed with cancer.

In a paper published in the journal Chemical Senses, the U. of I. team said this diminished taste sensitivity suggested that the taste buds on the front two-thirds of the cancer survivors’ tongues or a branch of the chorda tympani facial nerve, which carries signals from the tip of the tongue to the brain, may have been damaged during radiation therapy.

“While most studies suggest that patients’ ability to taste recovers within a few months of treatment, patients report that they continue to experience taste dysfunction for years after treatment ends,” said M. Yanina Pepino, a professor of food science and human nutrition at the U. of I. “Our primary goal in this study was to test the hypothesis that radiation therapy is associated with long-term alterations in patients’ senses of smell and taste.”

While undergoing radiation and/or chemotherapy, head and neck cancer patients may lose taste buds, triggering a transient reduction in their ability to taste – a condition called hypogeusia – or their perception of tastes may be altered, a condition called dysgeusia that can also occur when nerves are damaged during cancer surgery, she said.

“Taste buds’ average lifespan of about 10 days enables rapid recovery from injury if the stem cells are preserved, yet it also makes the short-lived and long-lived cells within taste buds particularly vulnerable to the direct cytotoxic and anti-proliferative effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy,” Pepino said.

Prior studies that explored taste loss and perception in these patients showed mixed results. Many of these studies involved “whole mouth” experiments that may not have detected regional damage to the taste buds at the front of the tongue or to the chorda tympani section of the facial nerve, said graduate student Raul Alfaro, the lead author of the study.

The U. of I. team assessed participants’ smell and taste functions separately and explored whether sensory interactions between taste and retronasal odors – aromas from food and beverages that are perceived in the oral cavity while eating or drinking – differed for the cancer survivors and the people in the control group.

The team assessed participants’ ability to taste regionally by applying cotton swabs soaked in flavored solutions to the tips of their tongues.

They also evaluated participants’ whole-mouth taste function by having them swish solutions around in their mouths for five seconds and spit them out. For this test, the participants were presented with nine cups of liquids that contained both taste and smell sensory components.

The cups contained two concentrations of strawberry extract in a sucrose solution, lemon extract in citric acid, salt in a vegetable broth and caffeinated instant coffee. They also received one cup of deionized water.

After sipping each sample, participants were asked to identify its taste quality – sweet, salty, bitter, umami (savory) or no sensation – and to rate the smell and taste intensity of the sample on a scale that ranged from “no sensation” to “strongest of any kind.”

Participants tasted the samples twice – once wearing a nose clip and once without – to determine whether their taste perception differed when the nose clip blocked their retronasal olfactory cues.

When participants’ sense of taste was assessed using the whole-mouth test with or without the nose clip, they similarly rated the taste and smell of nearly all of the samples.

This shows a tongue
Prior studies that explored taste loss and perception in these patients showed mixed results. Image is in the public domain

However, when participants’ sense of taste was assessed regionally at the tip of the tongue, the cancer survivors were more likely to respond they did not perceive a taste or to misidentify the taste quality – such as bitter, salty or sweet – of multiple samples.

“Although the results from the whole-mouth taste test suggested that head and neck cancer survivors’ taste function was normal and well preserved, results from the regional tests indicated that they had some deficits,” Pepino said. “Subtle taste dysfunction in the tip of the tongue persisted for several months after they completed their oncology treatments.

“Taste dysfunction at the tip of the tongue might sound unimportant; however, there is an elegant cross-talk between the nerves that conveys signals from the tip and the back of the tongue, such that taste signals in the tip of the tongue inhibit signaling from the back. This system allows taste intensity to remain constant in the whole mouth, even when taste signaling coming from the tip of the tongue is reduced. However, reduced signal input can also lead to phantom tastes, metallic taste and other oral symptoms.”

Additional co-authors of the study were food science and human nutrition professor Anna E. Arthur, who is also the Sylvia D. Stroup Scholar in Nutrition and Cancer, and an oncology dietitian with the Carle Cancer Center; Dr. Kalika P. Sarma, a radiation oncologist at Carle Foundation Hospital and a clinical assistant professor in the Carle Illinois College of Medicine; and then-research fellow Sylvia L. Crowder.

Funding: The work was supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the Division of Nutritional Sciences at the U. of I.

Crowder’s work on the project was supported by a Carle Illinois Cancer Scholars for Translational and Applied Research Fellowship, as well as a grant from the National Cancer Institute.

About this cancer and taste perception research news

Source: University of Illinois
Contact: Sharita Forrest – University of Illinois
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Taste and Smell Function in Head and Neck Cancer Survivors” by M. Yanina Pepino et al. Chemical Senses


Taste and Smell Function in Head and Neck Cancer Survivors

Survivors of head and neck squamous cell cancers (HNSCC) frequently complain of taste dysfunction long after radiation therapy is completed, which contradicts findings from most sensory evaluation studies, which predict dysfunction should resolve few months after treatment. Therefore, it remains unclear whether taste and smell function fully recovers in HNSCC survivors.

We evaluated HNSCC survivors (n=40; age 63±12 years, mean ± standard deviation) who received radiation therapy between 6 months and 10 years before recruitment and compared their responses to those of a healthy control group (n=20) equivalent in age, sex, race, smoking history, and body mass index. We assessed regional (tongue tip) and whole-mouth taste intensity perception using the general Labeled Magnitude Scale and smell function using the University of Pennsylvania Smell Identification Test (UPSIT).

To determine possible differences between groups in retronasal smell perception, we used solutions of sucrose with strawberry extract, citric acid with lemon extract, sodium chloride in vegetable broth, and caffeine in coffee and asked participants to rate perceived smell and taste intensities with and without nose clips.

We found groups had similar UPSIT and taste intensity scores when solutions were experienced in the whole mouth. However, HNSCC survivors were less likely to identify low concentrations of bitter, sweet, or salty stimuli in the tongue tip relative to healthy controls.

Our findings suggest persistent and subtle localized damage to the chorda tympani or to the taste buds in the fungiform papillae of HNSCC survivors, which could explain their sensory complaints long after completion of radiotherapy.

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