New University of Florida clinic makes good sense: World-renowned researcher a leader in UF’s effort to treat taste, smell disorders

In Linda Bartoshuk’s world there is accounting for taste. With a simple test, Bartoshuk can measure the number of taste buds a person has and classify them as supertasters, medium tasters or nontasters.

When supertasters place the small filter paper saturated with a chemical called 6-n-propylthiouracil, or PROP, in their mouths, they taste an intense bitterness. Nontasters taste nothing and medium tasters are somewhere in between.

But beyond explaining why for some people coffee is too bitter to tolerate (supertaster) or why some people can’t get enough of four-alarm chili (non-taster), Bartoshuk’s work has implications for the treatment of taste disorders.

Now a newly launched clinical service of the UF McKnight Brain Institute’s Center for Smell and Taste joins only a handful of such clinics in the United States. Housed in the College of Dentistry, the clinic is the only one in the Southeast to treat chemosensory disorders, which affect approximately 2 million Americans.

“There are enormous numbers of people who walk around with smell and taste disorders,” said the center’s director Barry Ache, Ph.D., who studies the biological chain of events that allows the brain to process odors. “These problems may be considered minor by others, but these disorders are debilitating for the people who have them.”

Bartoshuk, who recently joined the UF faculty as a visiting professor in the department of clinical and health psychology in the College of Public Health and Health Professions, began exploring genetic variations in taste perception in the 1970s. She describes supertasters as living in a “neon taste world,” experiencing three times the sensation of bitterness, sweetness or spiciness in foods compared with non-tasters.

Twenty-five percent of the population are supertasters, 25 percent are nontasters and 50 percent fall into the medium taster category.

“Your taster status not only influences your food choices, but it also affects your health,” said Bartoshuk, a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences and the first female academy member at UF.

Supertasters are less drawn to sweets and fatty foods, which explains why they have superior cardiovascular profiles and tend to be thinner than nontasters. But they are also less likely to eat bitter green vegetables, putting them at increased risk for colon cancer.

“Supertasters are also more susceptible to oral pain,” Bartoshuk said. “Because each taste bud is surrounded by a basket of pain nerves, more taste buds equals more pain nerves, causing supertasters to experience three times the burn that nontasters experience.”

Bartoshuk was the first to discover that burning mouth syndrome, a condition predominantly experienced by postmenopausal women, is caused by damage to the taste buds at the front of the tongue and is not a psychosomatic condition, as many believed. She will join College of Dentistry faculty members Donald Cohen, D.M.D., Frank Catalanotto, D.M.D., and Carol Stewart, D.D.S., in developing effective treatments for the disorder.

Working with Patrick Antonelli, M.D., chairman of the department of otolaryngology in the College of Medicine, Bartoshuk and her graduate student Derek Snyder are also studying a particular nerve that runs from the tongue and through the middle ear on its way to the brain. They have found that when this nerve is damaged, either by injury or chronic ear infections, taste sensation is impaired.

“Dr. Bartoshuk’s research in the area of taste disorders and oral pain is extremely well-known and well-regarded among her colleagues,” said UF President Bernie Machen. “Her work with ‘supertasters’ is especially intriguing and speaks to the innovative approach she takes in her work.

UF is fortunate to have someone the caliber of Dr. Bartoshuk in our midst. The university will gain immensely from her presence on the faculty.”

Patients with taste and smell disorders in the Southeast also stand to benefit from the work of Bartoshuk and others associated with the center, including Catalanotto, the center’s clinical director and director of the new Smell and Taste Clinic, who was one of many people instrumental in attracting Bartoshuk to UF and establishing the clinical initiative.

Many of the patients, especially those with smell disorders, will have ear, nose and throat problems, such as nasal sinus disease, nasal polyps, or congestion caused by allergies, said Catalanotto, adding that these patients will also be evaluated by Savita Collins, M.D., a UF ear, nose and throat surgeon.

“We will also hear from patients who have had some head trauma,” said Catalanotto, a professor in the College of Dentistry’s department of pediatric dentistry. “Rarer will be patients with a true taste complaint of unknown origin.

“Taste and smell problems are poorly understood by the health-care community,” he added. “Our role is to better understand these problems, counsel patients on how to deal with these issues and look for effective treatments. In addition, we believe that looking at taste and smell function in other systemic diseases can be helpful in understanding such diseases.”

For more information on the UF Smell and Taste Clinic, call (352) 294-0199.

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Jill Pease

Public Relations Director, College of Public Health and Health Professions

Jill Pease is the public relations director for the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions. She is responsible for developing public relations and communications strategies to promote the...Read More