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Priority Areas in Taste and Smell Research

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In developing research Priority Area goals, the NIDCD took into consideration areas of research that are within the mission of other NIH Institutes, Centers, and Offices (ICO) and are not primarily supported by the NIDCD but that have relevance to the study of chemical senses. In particular:

  • Dietary Intake: The NIDCD supports basic research on chemosensory factors controlling flavor perception, food selection, and related neural pathways. However, research studies that focus exclusively on the consequences of overconsumption or poor diet, including type 2 diabetes, metabolic disorders, stroke, cancer, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and obesity, are supported in the mission areas of other NIH ICOs, such as the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), the National Cancer Institute (NCI), or the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
  • Infectious Diseases: The NIDCD supports studies of basic neural mechanisms of insect olfaction, including olfaction of insects that serve as disease vectors for encephalitis, dengue fever, and malaria. However, the funding of studies focusing exclusively on the infectious nature of these diseases falls within the mission of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

Priority Area 1

Understanding Normal Function

  • Fundamental Biology of Chemosensory Function: Continue to develop and apply new tools and approaches to delineate the organization of molecules, cells, and neural circuits underlying the function of the gustatory and olfactory systems.
  • Peripheral and Central Bases of Flavor: Understand the complex interactions between peripheral and central aspects of flavor perception, including retronasal or orthonasal olfaction, oral chemesthesis (chemical irritation), taste, oral somesthesis (temperature, texture), memory, and motivational state (e.g., hunger).
  • Chemosensory Receptors Outside of the Nose or Oral Cavity: Localize, describe, and characterize the function of gustatory and olfactory receptors found in the gastrointestinal tract, lungs, or other areas outside the traditional locations in the oral and nasal cavities.
  • Sentinel/Sensory Functions: Describe how chemical senses help us avoid dangers such as spoiled or contaminated foods, how they detect potentially toxic chemicals in the environment and in our bodies, and how these protective functions can be damaged and regenerated.
  • Genetic Aspects of Chemosensory Sensitivity:
    • Genomics: Identify genes involved in the development and normal function of the taste and smell systems.
    • Variation: Describe the normal variation in taste and smell sensitivity. Identify the genes involved in order to understand what is outside the range of normal function. Describe how such variation may relate to susceptibility for human communication disorders.
    • Experience: Identify genes involved with storing memories of taste and smell. Determine how experience influences future diet.
    • Epigenetics: Describe how external factors (e.g., diet, stress) activate and deactivate genes.
  • Central Control of Taste and Smell: Characterize inputs from the central nervous system that adjust the sensitivity of taste and smell receptors or otherwise modulate sensory input, and determine how such activity may change depending on motivational or cognitive factors.
  • Developing Tools to Measure Taste and Smell Function: Provide practicing physicians with standardized tools to test taste and smell during physical exams or routine office visits.
  • Develop Novel Approaches to Alter Taste Function: Alter the levels of salt, sugar, and fat intake using innovative methods such as using artificial substitutes or changing learned flavor preferences.
  • Training: Emphasize training in certain classical areas of investigation (e.g., psychophysics, in vivo extracellular recordings, and quantitative electron microscopy) to ensure that taste and smell research can continue to be multidisciplinary.

Priority Area 2

Understanding Diseases and Disorders

  • Genetic Disorders: Clarify and classify taste and smell disorders caused mainly by significant genetic alterations (e.g., ciliopathies and channelopathies).
  • Sinusitis/Rhinitis: Identify the molecular and cellular bases for loss of olfaction following nasal cavity or sinus infection, the most common cause of temporary and permanent olfactory loss.
  • Understanding How the Activity of the Chemical Senses Can Lead to Excessive Consumption: Determine whether excessive calorie intake is affected by normal variation or altered function of taste and smell activity.
  • Epidemiology: Describe the incidence and prevalence of taste and smell loss and dysfunction. For example, as the population ages, determine how many more people report taste and smell problems that affect quality of life.

Priority Area 3

Improving Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention

  • Improved Diagnostic Tools and Pharmacological Treatments: Develop and validate tests to evaluate taste and smell function that are practical and affordable for use in the office setting. Develop targeted drugs to treat taste and smell dysfunction, especially drugs which slow apoptosis (cell death) and promote regeneration.
  • Regenerative Medicine/Tissue Engineering: Increase understanding of the properties that enable stem cells in the peripheral taste and smell pathways to proliferate and differentiate, providing insights not only for the treatment of taste and smell loss but also for the treatment of other neurological diseases.
  • Enhancing the Clinical Enterprise: Promote clinical training in the chemical senses, and create targeted funding opportunities, to encourage more clinical research and interdisciplinary teams of clinicians and basic scientists.

Priority Area 4

Improving Outcomes for Human Communication

  • Translational Research: Translational Research is in its infancy in the chemical senses, due in part to the modest amount of clinical research that has been conducted. Currently, there are no evidence-based preventive measures, interventions, or treatments applied to taste and smell dysfunction. Comparative effectiveness research is premature because of the lack of intervention and treatment strategies and decisions. This is a critical gap area in the chemical senses, especially since taste and smell loss become increasingly common in a population with an increasing number of older adults.

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Last Updated Date: 
April 1, 2015