Museum Blog

Hot Research Watch: Bitter Balm is Best

Posted 3/22/2011 12:03 AM by Nicole Garneau | Comments

The best science is that which we do not expect, and the best communication of science comes when the public is involved. So this post is dedicated to the Blue Tongue Blog's dedicated readers. I am so pleased that you have all shared your interest with me about the latest study in bitter taste reception, not on the tongue-- but unexpectedly in the lungs. There were a lot of great questions sent my way, so I wanted to use these next 400 words or so to break down the study which will hopefully help paint a better picture.


1. The large airways in your lungs that branch off from the trachea (windpipe) are called bronchi. They are made of smooth muscle cells (cells that you don't have to think about to move, they are also in certain organs like your heart).


2. The scientists that wrote this research paper found that these smooth muscle cells in the bronchi have bitter taste receptors on them that bind to certain bitter chemicals.

3. This binding of a bitter tastant to the receptor sets off a series of signals and messages in these cells which leads to an increase in calcium levels within them.

4. The increase in calcium opens channels in the cell membrane which leads to hyper-polarization (making the cell more negatively charged).

5. This hyper-polarization is the opposite of depolarization (making cells more positively charged) that occurs with histamine-provoked constriction of airways. So instead of constriction, the airways actually become relaxed and open more (bronchodilate).


Hierarchy in the body that this research addresses:

System: Respiratory. includes the nose, throat (pharynx),  voice box (larynx), windpipe (trachea), and the lungs (all the airways from bronchi to alveoli)

Organ: Lungs, specifically the bronchi

Cells: Smooth muscle

Protein on Cell: Bitter Taste Receptor

Signaling in Cell: bitter chemicals bind (like a lock and key) the bitter taste receptor proteins on the surface of the cell, this signals the cells to increase calcium, which hyper-polarizes the cell and leads to relaxation of the muscle, thus opening the airways.

Why should we care?

Scientists are looking to take advantage of this discovery that stimulating bitter taste receptors in the lungs is actually a mechanism for opening airways. The authors of this published report discuss how this could lead to novel treatments for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Together these affect 300 million people world-wide, and their data shows that bitter works even better than current treatments on the market. The authors caution however that just eating bitter food might not help (not asthma anyway, but broccoli is good for you), instead they plan on having bitter substances aerosolized (like in an inhaler) for people to use.


Reference Information:

The research article entitled, "Bitter taste receptors on airway smooth muscle bronchodilate by localized calcium signaling and reverse obstruction" was published on October 24, 2010 in  Nature Medicine, a very highly ranked science magazine/journal. This is a peer-reviewed article, which means that it was first submitted to other experts in that area of research to review it and make sure the science was solid and supported the conclusions.


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