The long-term goal of this research is to understand the influence of genetic and pathological variation in oral sensations on health and quality of life. Taste, oral burn (e.g., alcohol) and oral tactile intensity (e.g., fats) show broad genetic variation, which is linked to intake behaviors for bitter and sweet-fat foods, alcohol, and tobacco. These behaviors influence health risks for cancer and cardiovascular disease, but different risks arise for different individuals. For example, supertasters, who experience intense bitter taste from 6-npropylthiouracil (PROP), avoid bitter vegetables containing protective phytochemicals, which increases risk for certain cancers (e.g., breast, colon). On the other hand, supertasters avoid alcohol and tobacco due to their bitterness and oral burn, thereby reducing risk for craniofacial tumors. Taste input inhibits oral pain and oral tactile inputs centrally, ensuring intake during localized oral injury. However, this feedback comes at a cost, as pathology can alter oral sensation via disinhibition. Taste loss causes oral burn and oral tactile sensations to rise, and it may alter food and other behaviors (e.g., smoking, alcohol use). Some supertasters also experience phantom sensations (e.g., burning mouth syndrome); women are at special risk because they are more likely to be supertasters than are men. Recent findings suggest that taste damage compromises retronasal olfaction, altering flavor perception and food choice in ways that may promote fat intake (e.g., chronic ear infections in supertasting men). Experiments using oral anesthesia will further our knowledge of these mechanisms. Our research focuses on psychophysical comparisons of oral sensation between individuals and groups. Conventional intensity scales often distort these relationships, but our new methodology enables accurate group comparisons of sensory intensity. Recent isolation of a putative PROP taste receptor gene further extends our ability to dissociate genes from pathology. In sum, we are now equipped to uncover the full range of oral sensory variation and its effects on diet and health.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)
Research Project (R01)
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Somatosensory and Chemosensory Systems Study Section (SCS)
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Davis, Barry
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University of Florida
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Schools of Public Health
United States
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