Inflammation, driven by obesity, reduces the number of taste buds on the tongues of mice, shows study led by Andrew Kaufman, Robin Dando, and colleagues at Cornell University. While previous studies have indicated that weight gain can reduce one's sensitivity to the taste of food, and that this effect can be reversed when the weight is lost again, it's been unclear as to how this phenomenon arises. The new study is published in the journal PLOS Biology.
A taste bud comprises of approximately 50 to 100 cells of three major types, each with different roles in sensing the five primary tastes (salt, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami). Taste bud cells turn over quickly, with an average lifespan of just 10 days. To explore changes in taste buds in obesity, the authors fed mice either a normal diet made up of 14% fat, or an obesogenic diet containing 58% fat. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after 8 weeks, the mice fed the obesogenic diet weigh about one-third more than those receiving normal chow. But strikingly, the obese mice had about 25% fewer taste buds than the lean mice, with no change in the average size or the distribution of the three cell types within individual buds.
The turnover of taste bud cells normally arises from a balanced combination of programmed cell death (a process known as apoptosis) and generation of new cells from special progenitor cells. However, the researchers observed that the rate of apoptosis increased in obese mice, whereas the number of taste bud progenitor cells in the tongue declined, likely explaining the net decline in the number of taste buds. Mice that were genetically resistant to becoming obese did not show these effects, even when fed a high-fat diet, implying that they are due not to the consumption of fat per se, but rather the accumulation of fatty tissue (adipose).
"These data together suggest that gross adiposity stemming from chronic exposure to a high-fat diet is associated with a low-grade inflammatory response causing a disruption in the balancing mechanisms of taste bud maintenance and renewal," Dando said. "These results may point to novel therapeutic strategies for alleviating taste dysfunction in obese populations."