Human Tongues Can Apparently Smell Things

Woman sticking out tongue
The tongue consists of eight interwoven, striated muscles that can move in any direction. (Image credit: Shutterstock )

The cells in your tongue seem to have the ability to smell.

Researchers already knew that smell and taste are deeply interlinked in the brain, with smell providing most of the complex information associated with flavor. But a new paper, published online Tuesday (April 24) in the journal Chemical Senses, shows that the two senses seem linked in the surface of your tongue as well.

Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a nonprofit research institution in Philadelphia, grew human taste cells in a lab. Those cells contained several important molecules already found in olfactory cells, the cells found in the nasal passages that are responsible for sensing smells. And when they exposed the taste cells to odor molecules, the cells responded like olfactory cells do.

This is the first demonstration of olfactory sensors in human taste cells, though they have been found elsewhere in the body (including in the gut, sperm cells and even hair). [9 Weird Ways You Can Test Positive for Drugs]

"The presence of olfactory receptors and taste receptors in the same cell will provide us with exciting opportunities to study interactions between odor and taste stimuli on the tongue," Mehmet Hakan Ozdener, the senior author of the study, said in a statement.

The finding suggests that human taste cells might be more complicated than scientists previously thought. Taste is a fairly straightforward sense, which sorts chemicals into at least five categories: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (savory). Scientists thought that those simple categories of tastes were only integrated with smell (along with input from other senses) in the brain. But now scientists know that intermingling may happen before sensory input reaches the brain.

Originally published on Live Science.

Rafi Letzter
Staff Writer
Rafi joined Live Science in 2017. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of journalism. You can find his past science reporting at Inverse, Business Insider and Popular Science, and his past photojournalism on the Flash90 wire service and in the pages of The Courier Post of southern New Jersey.