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Priority Areas in Taste and Smell Research

In developing Priority Areas, 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. These research areas include dietary intake, infectious diseases, and neurological diseases.

  • 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 by several other NIH ICOs.
  • 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 fall outside of NIDCD’s mission area.
  • Neurological Diseases: The NIDCD supports studies on alteration and loss of olfactory function, including potential diagnostic significance of such changes, in neurological diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. However, studies focusing exclusively on causes and treatments of these diseases fall within the mission of areas of other NIH ICOs.

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 chemesthetic (trigeminal), gustatory and olfactory systems, including development, cell turnover, regeneration, and plasticity.
  • 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 (such as hunger).
  • 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, including the use of single-cell profiling approaches.
    • 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., sensory experience, diet, stress) activate and deactivate genes.
  • Central Control of Taste and Smell: Characterize top-down control within the central nervous system that modulates sensory input, sensory processing and perception, and determine how such activity may change depending on internal state, motivational or cognitive factors.
  • Developing Tools to Measure Taste and Smell Function: Refine, develop, and apply appropriate psychophysical and behavioral methods for assessing taste and smell functions in animal models and humans. Provide practicing physicians with standardized tools to test taste and smell during physical exams or routine office visits. Develop criteria and metrics for the range of “normal” taste and smell by analogy to hearing and vision.
  • 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.

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). Determine the normal range of variation of function in the chemical senses as related to genetic polymorphisms.
  • Environmental Insults on Taste and Smell: Identify the mechanisms that contribute to taste and smell loss and/or dysfunction resulting from radiation, chemotherapy, head trauma, and toxins.
  • 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 or Malnutrition: Determine whether 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. Enable practical approaches for wider integration of standardized chemosensory measurements into large-scale epidemiological and clinical studies.

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 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 to encourage development of animal models of relevant disorders and promote clinical and translational research, involving interdisciplinary teams of clinicians and basic scientists.

Priority Area 4: Improving Outcomes for Human Communication

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

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Last Updated Date: 
January 27, 2017