Chapter 9. Hearing, Balance, Taste, and Smell

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Jon Hamilton If this year's turkey seems over brined, blame your brain. The question of when salty becomes too salty is decided by a special set of neurons in the front of the brain, researchers report in the journal Cell. A separate set of neurons in the back of the brain adjusts your appetite for salt, the researchers showed in a series of experiments on mice. "Sodium craving and sodium tolerance are controlled by completely different types of neurons," says Yuki Oka, an author of the study and a professor of biology at Caltech. The finding could have health implications because salt ingestion is a "major issue" in many countries, including the United States, says Nirupa Chaudhari, a professor of physiology and biology at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. Too much salt can cause high blood pressure and raise the risk for heart disease and stroke, says Chaudhari, who was not involved in the study. Craving, to a point The study sought to explain the complicated relationship that people and animals have with salt, also known as sodium chloride. We are happy to drink sodas, sports drinks, and even tap water that contain a little salt, Oka says. "But if you imagine a very high concentration of sodium like ocean water, you really hate it." This aversion to super salty foods and beverages holds unless your body is really low on salt, something that's pretty rare in people these days. But experiments with mice found that when salt levels plummet, the tolerance for salty water goes up. "Animals start liking ocean water," Oka says. The reason for this change involves at least two different interactions between the body and brain, Oka's team found. When the concentration of sodium in the bloodstream begins to fall below healthy levels, a set of neurons in the back of the brain respond by dialing up an animal's craving for salt. "If you stimulate these neurons, then animals run to a sodium source and start eating," Oka says. Meanwhile, a different set of neurons in the front of the brain monitors the saltiness of any food or water the mice are consuming. And usually, these neurons will set an upper limit on saltiness. © 2023 npr

Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste); Obesity
Link ID: 29024 - Posted: 11.26.2023

By Sandra G. Boodman The first sign of trouble was difficulty reading. In late 2014 Cathy A. Haft, a New York real estate broker who divides her time between Brooklyn and Long Island, thought she needed new glasses. But an eye exam found that her prescription was largely unchanged. Bladder problems came next, followed by impaired balance, intermittent dizziness and unexplained falls. By 2018 Haft, unable to show properties because she was too unsteady on her feet, was forced to retire. For the next four years specialists evaluated her for neuromuscular and balance-related ear problems in an attempt to explain her worsening condition, which came to include cognitive changes her husband feared was Alzheimer’s disease. In August 2022 Haft, by then dependent on a walker, consulted a Manhattan neurosurgeon. After observing her gait and reviewing images from a recent brain scan, he sent her to a colleague. Less than eight weeks later Haft underwent brain surgery for a condition that is frequently unrecognized or misdiagnosed. The operation succeeded in restoring skills that had gradually slipped away, stunting Haft’s life. “It’s pretty astonishing that this disorder is not that uncommon and no one put the pieces together,” she said. In her case a confluence of confounding symptoms, a complex medical history and the possible failure to take a holistic approach may have led doctors to overlook a condition that can sometimes be reversed — with dramatic results.

Keyword: Movement Disorders; Alzheimers
Link ID: 29020 - Posted: 11.26.2023

By Hannah Docter-Loeb Paxlovid can prevent severe illness from COVID-19, but it comes with a price: In many users, the antiviral drug leaves a weird, metallic aftertaste that can last for days—a condition nicknamed “Paxlovid mouth.” Now, researchers say they’ve figured out why. A component of Paxlovid activates one of the tongue’s bitter taste receptors even at low levels, which may draw out the yuck factor, the team reports this month in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications. The work could lead to ways to alleviate the unpleasant side effect. The study is a “good first step” in teasing apart the mechanism behind Paxlovid mouth, says Alissa Nolden, a sensory scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who was not involved with the research. But she says more work will be needed to truly understand why the metallic taste lingers for so long. Paxlovid is composed of two antivirals: nirmatrelvir and ritonavir. Nirmatrelvir blocks a key protein that SARS-CoV-2 needs to replicate. Ritonavir helps maintain the level of nirmatrelvir in the blood. Scientists have suspected that ritonavir is the primary culprit behind Paxlovid mouth. It was originally used in HIV medications and was known to directly taste bitter. A recent study also demonstrated that the compound acts on several tongue receptors that respond to bitter taste. However, ritonavir’s bitterness is short-lived, says Peihua Jiang, a molecular biologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, an independent research institute. So in the new study, he and colleagues looked more closely at nirmatrelvir. They added the antiviral to various groups of cells, each collection with a different member of the 25 human bitter taste receptors. They then identified the receptors that responded most vigorously to the compound by changes in a fluorescence marker in the cells. Nirmatrelvir seemed to hone in on TAS2R1, one of the primary receptors responsible for the bitter aftertaste of antiviral medicines, the researchers found. The compound activated the receptor even when its concentration was relatively low, which could explain why Paxlovid causes a persistent bitter taste.

Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 29016 - Posted: 11.22.2023

By Timmy Broderick Smell is probably our most underappreciated sense. “If you ask people which sense they would be most willing to give up, it would be the olfactory system,” says Michael Leon, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Irvine. But a loss of smell has been linked to health complications such as depression and cognitive decline. And mounting evidence shows that olfactory training, which involves deliberately smelling strong scents on a regular basis, may help stave off that decline. Now a team of researchers led by Leon has successfully boosted cognitive performance by exposing people to smells while they sleep. Twenty participants—all older than 60 years and generally healthy—received six months of overnight olfactory enrichment, and all significantly improved their ability to recall lists of words compared with a control group. The study appeared in Frontiers in Neuroscience. The scientists are unsure about how the overnight odors may have produced this result, but Leon notes that the neurons involved in olfaction have “direct superhighway access” to brain regions related to memory and emotion. In participants who received the treatment, the study authors observed physical changes in a brain structure that connects the memory and emotional centers—a pathway that often deteriorates as people age, especially in those with Alzheimer's disease. Previous successful attempts to boost memory with odors typically relied on complicated interventions with multiple exposures a day. If the nighttime treatment proves successful in larger trials, it promises to be a less intrusive way to achieve similar effects, says Vidya Kamath, a neuropsychologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the recent study. Larger trials may also help answer some remaining questions. The new study used widely available essential oils such as rose and eucalyptus, but researchers aren't sure if just any odor would get the same results. They don't know how much an odor's qualities—whether it's foul or pleasant to people, for example—affects the cognitive gains. It is also unclear how much novelty plays a role, says Michał Pieniak, a psychology researcher at the University of Wroclaw in Poland who has studied olfactory training. © 2023 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN,

Keyword: Sleep; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 29010 - Posted: 11.18.2023

By Sean Cummings If a bite of dandelion greens or extra-dark chocolate makes you pucker, there’s good reason. Bitterness can indicate the presence of toxins in potential foods, and animals long ago honed the ability to ferret out harsh tastes. But the ability to sense bitterness may be even older than many presumed, a new study finds. It likely first evolved in vertebrates roughly 460 million years ago, when sharks and other cartilaginous fishes separated from bony vertebrates like ourselves, researchers report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The bitter taste receptor identified in a pair of shark species may mirror a sort of all-purpose bitterness detector that our common ancestor possessed. “Given how quickly taste receptors change, to have this one receptor conserved over 460 million years, that’s pretty astounding,” says Craig Montell, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara who was not involved in the study. “The ability to react to the particular bitter chemicals that activate it must be really important.” Humans and other bony vertebrates experience bitterness thanks to taste 2 receptors, or T2Rs, which are proteins that transmit taste information to the brain. But scientists had never found T2Rs in cartilaginous vertebrates such as sharks and rays. That led many to assume these receptors had evolved after their lineage split from the bony vertebrates. Yet sharks and other cartilaginous fish do have smell receptors closely related to bitter taste receptors. That made Sigrun Korsching, a neurobiologist at the University of Cologne, wonder: Could bitter taste perception be even older than most believed? To find out, she and colleagues examined 17 genomes from various species of sharks, skates, and sawfish. Twelve of these had genes that coded for taste receptors similar to T2Rs, which they dubbed T2R1s. In the lab, the researchers implanted genes for these receptors from two of the species—bamboo sharks and catsharks—into human kidney cells, then exposed them to 94 bitter substances. These included resveratrol, found in foods such as grapes, peanuts, and cranberries, and amarogentin, a compound from the gentian plant considered one of the most astringent tastes in the world.

Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste); Evolution
Link ID: 29006 - Posted: 11.15.2023

Saima Sidik When the scent of morning coffee wafts past the nose, the brain encodes which nostril it enters, new research shows1. Integrating information from both nostrils might help us to identify the odour. The results were published today in Current Biology. A region of the brain called the piriform cortex, which spans the brain’s two hemispheres, is known to receive and process information about scents. However, scientists were unsure whether the two sides of the piriform cortex react to smells in unison or independently. To investigate this question, researchers recruited people with epilepsy who were undergoing brain surgery to identify the areas of their brains responsible for their seizures. Participants were awake for the surgery, during which the scientists delivered scents to one or both nostrils through tiny tubes that reached roughly one centimetre into each nostril. The authors took advantage of electrodes placed in the study participants’ brains to take readings of activity in the piriform cortex. In reality, scents rarely hit only one nostril. Instead, they’re likely to enter one nostril slightly ahead of the other. “The question to ask is, well, can the brain exploit these potential differences?” says Naz Dikecligil, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and a co-author of the study. The findings suggest that the brain does make use of the different arrival times. When an odour was delivered to a single nostril, the side of the brain closest to that nostril reacted first, and a reaction then followed in the opposite side of the brain. “There seem to be actually two odour representations, corresponding to odour information coming from each nostril,” Dikecligil says. When the researchers provided a scent to both nostrils simultaneously, they saw that both sides of the brain recognized the scent faster than either did when it was delivered through only one nostril. This suggests that the two sides do synergize to some degree, even though one lags behind the other in encoding a scent, Dikecligil says. © 2023 Springer Nature Limited

Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 28992 - Posted: 11.08.2023

By Paula Span A year ago, the Food and Drug Administration announced new regulations allowing the sale of over-the-counter hearing aids and setting standards for their safety and effectiveness. That step — which was supposed to take three years but required five — portended cheaper, high-quality hearing aids that people with mild to moderate hearing loss could buy online or at local pharmacies and big stores. So how’s it going? It’s a mixed picture. Manufacturers and retailers have become serious about making hearing aids more accessible and affordable. Yet the O.T.C. market remains confusing, if not downright chaotic, for the mostly older consumers the new regulations were intended to help. The past year also brought renewed focus on the importance of treating hearing loss, which affects two-thirds of people over age 70. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University published the first randomized clinical trial showing that hearing aids could help reduce the pace of cognitive decline. Some background: In 2020, the influential Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care identified hearing loss as the greatest potentially modifiable risk factor for dementia. Previous studies had demonstrated a link between hearing loss and cognitive decline, said Dr. Frank Lin, an otolaryngologist and epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins and lead author of the new research. “What remained unanswered was, If we treat hearing loss, does it actually reduce cognitive loss?” he said. The ACHIEVE study (for Aging and Cognitive Health Evaluation in Elders) showed that, at least for a particular group of older adults, it could. Of nearly 1,000 people ages 70 to 84 with untreated mild to moderate hearing loss, half received hearing assessments from audiologists, were fitted with midpriced hearing aids and were counseled on how to use them for several months. The control group participated in a health education program. Over three years, the study found that hearing-aid use had scant effect on healthy volunteers at low risk of cognitive loss. But among participants who were older and less affluent, hearing aids reduced the rate of cognitive decline by 48 percent, compared with the control group, a difference the researchers deemed “clinically meaningful.” © 2023 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Hearing; Alzheimers
Link ID: 28979 - Posted: 11.01.2023

Max Kozlov Rich, high-fat foods such as ice cream are loved not only for their taste, but also for the physical sensations they produce in the mouth — their ‘mouthfeel’. Now scientists have identified a brain area that both responds to the smooth texture of fatty foods and uses that information to rate the morsel’s allure, guiding eating behaviour1. These findings, published on 16 October in The Journal of Neuroscience, “add a new dimension” of the eating experience to scientists’ understanding of what motivates people to choose certain foods, says Ivan de Araujo, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, who was not involved in the study. To explore how food textures influence eating habits, Fabian Grabenhorst, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, UK, and his colleagues set out to quantify the mouthfeel of fatty foods. The authors prepared several milkshakes with varying fat and sugar contents and placed a sample of each between two pig tongues procured from a local butcher. The researchers then slid the tongues across each other and measured the amount of friction between the two surfaces, providing a numerical index of each shake’s smoothness. The researchers then gave 22 participants milkshakes with the same compositions as those tested on the pig tongues. After tasting each milkshake, participants placed bids on how much they would spend to drink a full glass of it after the experiment. Accompanying brain scans showed that activity patterns in an area called the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is involved in reward processing, reflected the shakes’ texture. The scans also identified OFC activity patterns that reflected participants’ bids, suggesting that this brain region links mouthfeel to the value placed on that food. © 2023 Springer Nature Limited

Keyword: Obesity; Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 28966 - Posted: 10.17.2023

By Tim Vernimmen For humans, division of labor has become a necessity: No person in the world has all the knowledge and skills to perform all the tasks that are required to keep our highly technological societies afloat. This has made us entirely dependent on each other, leaving us individually vulnerable. We really can’t make it on our own. From archaeological findings, we can reconstruct more or less how this situation evolved. Initially, everyone was doing more or less the same thing. But because food was shared among people living in hunter-gatherer groups, some were able to specialize in tasks other than finding food, such as fashioning tools, treating illnesses or cultivating plants. These skills enriched the group but made the specialists even more dependent on others. This further reinforced cooperation among group members and pushed our species to even higher levels of specialization — and prosperity. “Societies that have highly developed task-sharing and division of labor between group members are conspicuous because of their exceptional ecological success,” says Michael Taborsky, a behavioral biologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland. And he doesn’t just mean us: Extensive division of labor also can be seen among many social insects — ants, wasps, bees and termites — in which individuals in large colonies often specialize in particular tasks, making them impressively effective. “It is no exaggeration,” Taborsky says, “to say that societies” — of both humans and social insects — “predominate life on Earth.” But how did this division of labor evolve? Why does it seem to be rare outside of our species and the social insects? Is it, in fact, as rare as it seems? Taborsky, who has studied cooperation in animals for decades, has become increasingly interested in these questions. In March 2023, he and Barbara Taborsky, his wife and colleague, organized a scientific workshop on the topic in Berlin to which they invited a number of other experts. Over the course of two days, the group discussed how division of labor may have evolved over time, and what mechanisms allow it to develop, over and over again, in every colony of certain species. One of the invited scientists was Jennifer Fewell, a social insect biologist at Arizona State University who coauthored an influential overview of division of labor in the Annual Review of Entomology in 2001 and has studied the subject for decades. In social insect colonies, she says, “there is no central controller telling everybody what to do, but instead, the division of labor emerges from the interaction between individuals.” © 2023 Annual Reviews

Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste); Evolution
Link ID: 28944 - Posted: 10.05.2023

By Hannah Docter-Loeb Growing up, Julian Meeks knew what a life without a sense of smell could look like. He’d watched this grandfather navigate the condition, known as anosmia, observing that he didn’t perceive flavor and only enjoyed eating very salty or meaty foods. The experience influenced him, in part, to study chemosensation, which involves both smell and taste. Meeks, now a professor of neuroscience at the University of Rochester, told Undark that neither gets much attention compared to other senses: “Often, they’re thought of as second or third in order of importance.” The pandemic changed that, at least somewhat, after it left millions of people without a sense of smell, albeit some temporarily. In particular, more researchers started looking at a specific type of condition called acquired anosmia. Common causes include traumatic brain injury, or TBI, neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, or following a viral infection like Covid-19. Due to the pandemic, “many people found it scientifically interesting to focus their research on smell,” said Valentina Parma, the assistant director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a nonprofit research institute in Philadelphia. By one account, NIH funding of anosmia research nearly doubled between 2019 and 2021. But many of the research findings do not apply to those who have lacked the ability to smell since birth: congenital anosmics. And, despite the increased attention to smell loss more broadly, some researchers still face challenges in funding studies. In March 2023, for instance, Meeks received a peer review for a small grant, of less than $275,000, from the National Institutes of Health, with which he had planned to look into anosmia in the context of TBI. For Meeks, the response was frustrating. One expert reviewer in particular “didn’t really understand why there would be any need to establish a preclinical model of anosmia with TBI,” he said, noting that the reviewer also wrote that because anosmia is not a major health problem, the value of the research was low. The comment, Meeks added, was “quite discouraging.”

Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 28931 - Posted: 09.27.2023

By Amber Dance We’ve all heard of the five tastes our tongues can detect — sweet, sour, bitter, savory-umami and salty. But the real number is actually six, because we have two separate salt-taste systems. One of them detects the attractive, relatively low levels of salt that make potato chips taste delicious. The other one registers high levels of salt — enough to make overly salted food offensive and deter overconsumption. Exactly how our taste buds sense the two kinds of saltiness is a mystery that’s taken some 40 years of scientific inquiry to unravel, and researchers haven’t solved all the details yet. In fact, the more they look at salt sensation, the weirder it gets. Many other details of taste have been worked out over the past 25 years. For sweet, bitter and umami, it’s known that molecular receptors on certain taste bud cells recognize the food molecules and, when activated, kick off a series of events that ultimately sends signals to the brain. Sour is slightly different: It is detected by taste bud cells that respond to acidity, researchers recently learned. In the case of salt, scientists understand many details about the low-salt receptor, but a complete description of the high-salt receptor has lagged, as has an understanding of which taste bud cells host each detector. “There are a lot of gaps still in our knowledge — especially salt taste. I would call it one of the biggest gaps,” says Maik Behrens, a taste researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Food Systems Biology in Freising, Germany. “There are always missing pieces in the puzzle.” A fine balance Our dual perception of saltiness helps us to walk a tightrope between the two faces of sodium, an element that’s crucial for the function of muscles and nerves but dangerous in high quantities. To tightly control salt levels, the body manages the amount of sodium it lets out in urine, and controls how much comes in through the mouth. © 2023 Annual Reviews

Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 28908 - Posted: 09.16.2023

By David Grimm Apart from Garfield’s legendary love of lasagna, perhaps no food is more associated with cats than tuna. The dish is a staple of everything from The New Yorker cartoons to Meow Mix jingles—and more than 6% of all wild-caught fish goes into cat food. Yet tuna (or any seafood for that matter) is an odd favorite for an animal that evolved in the desert. Now, researchers say they have found a biological explanation for this curious craving. In a study published this month in Chemical Senses, scientists report that cat taste buds contain the receptors needed to detect umami—the savory, deep flavor of various meats, and one of the five basic tastes in addition to sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Indeed, umami appears to be the primary flavor cats seek out. That’s no surprise for an obligate carnivore. But the team also found these cat receptors are uniquely tuned to molecules found at high concentrations in tuna, revealing why our feline friends seem to prefer this delicacy over all others. “This is an important study that will help us better understand the preferences of our familiar pets,” says Yasuka Toda, a molecular biologist at Meiji University and a leader in studying the evolution of umami taste in mammals and birds. The work could help pet food companies develop healthier diets and more palatable medications for cats, says Toda, who was not involved with the industry-funded study. Cats have a unique palate. They can’t taste sugar because they lack a key protein for sensing it. That’s probably because there’s no sugar in meat, says Scott McGrane, a flavor scientist and research manager for the sensory science team at the Waltham Petcare Science Institute, which is owned by pet food–maker Mars Petcare UK. There’s a saying in evolution, he says: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Cats also have fewer bitter taste receptors than humans do—a common trait in uber-carnivores. But cats must taste something, McGrane reasoned, and that something is likely the savory flavor of meat. In humans and many other animals, two genes—Tas1r1 and Tas1r3—encode proteins that join together in taste buds to form a receptor that detects umami. Previous work had shown that cats express the Tas1r3 gene in their taste buds, but it was unclear whether they had the other critical puzzle piece.

Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste); Evolution
Link ID: 28885 - Posted: 08.26.2023

By Claudia López Lloreda In what seems like something out of a sci-fi movie, scientists have plucked the famous Pink Floyd song “Another Brick in the Wall” from individuals’ brains. Using electrodes, computer models and brain scans, researchers previously have been able to decode and reconstruct individual words and entire thoughts from people’s brain activity (SN: 11/15/22; SN: 5/1/23). The new study, published August 15 in PLOS Biology, adds music into the mix, showing that songs can also be decoded from brain activity and revealing how different brain areas pick up an array of acoustical elements. The finding could eventually help improve devices that allow communication from people with paralysis or other conditions that limit one’s ability to speak. People listened to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” song while having their brain activity monitored. Using that data and a computer model, researchers were able to reconstruct sounds that resemble the song. To decode the song, neuroscientist Ludovic Bellier of the University of California, Berkeley and colleagues analyzed the brain activity recorded by electrodes implanted in the brains of 29 individuals with epilepsy. While in the hospital undergoing monitoring for the disorder, the individuals listened to the 1979 rock song. People’s nerve cells, particularly those in auditory areas, responded to hearing the song, and the electrodes detected not only neural signals associated with words but also rhythm, harmony and other musical aspects, the team found. With that information, the researchers developed a computer model to reconstruct sounds from the brain activity data, and found that they could produce sounds that resemble the song. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2023.

Keyword: Hearing; Brain imaging
Link ID: 28876 - Posted: 08.19.2023

By Elizabeth Preston Some things need no translation. No matter what language you speak, you can probably recognize a fellow human who is cheering in triumph or swearing in anger. If you are a crocodile, you may recognize the sound of a young animal crying in distress, even if that animal is a totally different species — like, say, a human baby. That sound means you are close to a meal. In a study published Wednesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers put speakers near crocodiles and played recordings of human, bonobo and chimpanzee infants. The crocodiles were attracted to the cries, especially shrieks that sounded more distressed. “That means that distress is something that is shared by species that are really, really distant,” said Nicolas Grimault, a bioacoustic research director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research and one of the paper’s authors. “You have some kind of emotional communication between crocodiles and humans.” These infant wails most likely drew crocodiles because they signaled an easy meal nearby, the authors say. But in some cases, the opposite may have been true: The crocs were trying to help. The animals in the study were Nile crocodiles, African predators that can reach up to 18 feet long. Understandably, the researchers kept their distance. They visited the reptiles at a Moroccan zoo and placed remote-controlled loudspeakers on the banks of outdoor ponds. The researchers played recordings of cries from those speakers while groups of up to 25 crocodiles were nearby. Some cries came from infant chimpanzees or bonobos calling to their mothers. Others were human babies, recorded either at bath time or in the doctor’s office during a vaccination. Nearly all of the recordings prompted some crocodiles to look or to move toward the speaker. When they heard the sounds of human babies getting shots, for example, almost half the crocodiles in a group responded. Dr. Grimault said the reptiles seemed most tempted by cries with a harsh quality that other studies have linked to distress in mammals. © 2023 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Hearing; Evolution
Link ID: 28871 - Posted: 08.09.2023

By Aara'L Yarber When the pandemic began, losing your sense of smell was considered a key indicator of covid-19, and the condition affected about half of those who tested positive for the coronavirus. However, a new study reveals that the chance of smell loss from the latest omicron variants has dropped dramatically since the early days of the pandemic. “So now, three people out of 100 getting covid presumably may lose their sense of smell, which is far, far less than it was before,” said study leader Evan Reiter, the medical director of Virginia Commonwealth University Health’s Smell and Taste Disorders Center. The findings, published in the journal Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery, mean that losing smell and, by association, your sense of taste is no longer a reliable sign that someone has a covid infection, Reiter said. Advertisement “Now, the chance of you having [smell loss from] covid as opposed to another virus, like different cold and flu bugs, is about the same,” he said. Although it is unclear why the frequency of smell loss has decreased over time, vaccinations and preexisting immunity could be playing a role, the researchers said. Doctors have had difficulty explaining the cause of smell loss, but some research suggests it is due to covid triggering a prolonged immune assault on olfactory nerve cells. These cells sit at the top of the nasal cavity and help send smell signals from the nose to the brain. It is possible that over time this attack causes a decline in the number of olfactory cells. But if you’ve already been infected or vaccinated, the time the virus has to inflict this kind of damage is dramatically reduced, said Benjamin tenOever, a professor of microbiology and medicine at New York University who was not involved in the study.

Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 28866 - Posted: 08.05.2023

By Tanvi Dutta Gupta The Arctic Ocean is a noisy place. Creatures of the deep have learned to live with the cacophony of creaking ice sheets and breaking icebergs, but humanmade sources of noise from ships and oil and gas infrastructure are altering that natural submarine soundscape. Now, a research team has found that even subtle underwater noise pollution can cause narwhals to make shallower dives and cut their hunts short. The research, published today in Science Advances, uncovers “some really great information on a species we know very little about,” says Ari Friedlaender, an ocean ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, not involved in the study. Knowing how the whales react to these noises could help conservationists “act proactively” to protect the animals in their Arctic home where warming waters already threaten their lifestyles. Narwhals—with their long, unicornlike horns extending from their faces—live in one of the most extreme environments in the world, explains Outi Tervo, an ecologist at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources and the study’s first author. Each narwhal returns in summer to the same small fjord where it was born in order to feed on fish, squid, and shrimp. As humans increasingly encroach on Arctic waters, though, scientists, conservationists, and Inuit communities have worried about how development and ship traffic will affect the whales. Many of Greenland’s Inuit communities rely on the narwhals as a culturally important food source. When Greenland’s government started to auction new permits for offshore oil exploration in 2011, Tervo and colleagues decided to examine whether the noise pollution associated with such development affected narwhals. For instance, boats exploring the sea floor tow instruments called airguns, which blast air a few meters below the vessels to sonically suss out the presence of cavities that may contain oil and gas. Those pulses can be the “loudest sound put in the ocean by humans,” says study co-author Susanna Blackwell, a biologist with Greeneridge Sciences.

Keyword: Animal Communication; Hearing
Link ID: 28858 - Posted: 07.27.2023

By Freda Kreier Pregnancy can do weird things to the body. For some bats, it can hamper their ability to “see” the world around them. Kuhl’s pipistrelle bats (Pipistrellus kuhlii) echolocate less frequently while pregnant, researchers report March 28 in BMC Biology. The change may make it harder for the tiny bats to detect prey and potential obstacles in the environment. The study is among the first to show that pregnancy can shape how nonhuman mammals sense their surroundings, says Yossi Yovel, a neuroecologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel. Nocturnal bats like Kuhl’s pipistrelles famously use sound to navigate and hunt prey in the dark (SN: 9/20/17). Their calls bounce off whatever is nearby and bats use the echoes to reconstruct what’s around them, a process aptly named echolocation. The faster a bat makes calls, the better it can make out its surroundings. But rapid-fire calling requires breathing deeply, which is something that pregnancy can get in the way of. “Although I’ve never been pregnant, I know that when I eat a lot, it’s more difficult to breathe,” Yovel says. So pregnancy — which can add a full gram to a 7-gram Kuhl’s pipistrelle and may push up on the lungs — might hamper echolocation. Yovel and colleagues tested their hypothesis by capturing 10 Kuhl’s pipistrelles, five of whom were pregnant, and training the bats to find and land on a platform. Recordings of the animals’ calls revealed that bats that weren’t pregnant made around 130 calls on average while searching for the platform. But bats that were pregnant made only around 110 calls, or 15 percent fewer. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2023.

Keyword: Hearing; Hormones & Behavior
Link ID: 28774 - Posted: 05.10.2023

By Neelam Bohra Ayla Wing’s middle school students don’t always know what to make of their 26-year-old teacher’s hearing aids. The most common response she hears: “Oh, my grandma has them, too.” But grandma’s hearing aids were never like this: Bluetooth-enabled and connected to her phone, they allow Ms. Wing to toggle with one touch between custom settings. She can shut out the world during a screeching subway ride, hear her friends in noisy bars during a night out and even understand her students better by switching to “mumbly kids.” A raft of new hearing aids have hit the market in recent years, offering greater appeal to a generation of young adults that some experts say is both developing hearing problems earlier in life and — perhaps paradoxically — becoming more comfortable with an expensive piece of technology pumping sound into their ears. Some of the new models, including Ms. Wing’s, are made by traditional prescription brands, which usually require a visit to a specialist. But the Food and Drug Administration opened up the market last year when it allowed the sale of hearing aids over the counter. In response, brand names like Sony and Jabra began releasing their own products, adding to the new wave of designs and features that appeal to young consumers. “These new hearing aids are sexy,” said Pete Bilzerian, a 25-year-old in Richmond, Va., who has worn the devices since he was 7. He describes his early models as distinctly unsexy: “big, funky, tan-colored hearing aids with the molding that goes all around the ear.” But increasingly, those have given way to sleeker, smaller models with more technological capabilities. Nowadays, he said, no one seems to notice the electronics in his ear. “If it ever does come up as a topic, I just brush it off and say, ‘Hey, I got these very expensive AirPods.’” More people in Mr. Bilzerian’s age group might need the equivalent of expensive AirPods, experts say. By the time they turn 30, about a fifth of Americans today have had their hearing damaged by noise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated. This number adds to the already substantial population of young people with hearing loss tied to genetics or medical conditions. © 2023 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Hearing
Link ID: 28770 - Posted: 05.06.2023

By Wynne Parry For the first time, researchers have determined how a human olfactory receptor captures an airborne scent molecule, the pivotal chemical event that triggers our sense of smell. Whether it evokes roses or vanilla, cigarettes or gasoline, every scent starts with free-floating odor molecules that latch onto receptors in the nose. Multitudes of such unions produce the perception of the smells we love, loathe or tolerate. Researchers therefore want to know in granular detail how smell sensors detect and respond to odor molecules. Yet human smell receptors have resisted attempts to visualize how they work in detail — until now. In a recent paper published in Nature, a team of researchers delineated the elusive three-dimensional structure of one of these receptors in the act of holding its quarry, a compound that contributes to the aroma of Swiss cheese and body odor. “People have been puzzled about the actual structure of olfactory receptors for decades,” said Michael Schmuker, who uses chemical informatics to study olfaction at the University of Hertfordshire in England. Schmuker was not involved in the study, which he describes as “a real breakthrough.” He and others who study our sense of smell say that the reported structure represents a step toward better understanding how the nose and brain jointly wring from airborne chemicals the sensations that warn of rotten food, evoke childhood memories, help us find mates and serve other crucial functions. The complexity of the chemistry that the nose detects has made olfaction particularly difficult to explain. Researchers think that human noses possess about 400 types of olfactory receptors, which are tasked with detecting a vastly larger number of odoriferous “volatiles,” molecules that vaporize readily, from the three-atom, rotten-egg-smelling hydrogen sulfide to the much larger, musky-scented muscone. (One recent estimate put the number of possible odor-bearing compounds at 40 billion or more.) == All Rights Reserved © 2023

Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 28766 - Posted: 05.03.2023

Sara Reardon Octopuses and squids both use the suckers on their limbs to grapple with their prey and to taste their quarry at the same time. Now, a pair of studies describes how these animals ‘taste by touching’ — and how evolution has equipped them with the perfect sensory ability for their lifestyles1,2. The papers were published in Nature on 12 April. The research details the structure of the receptors that stud the animals’ suckers. These receptors transmit information that enables the creature to taste chemicals on a surface independently from those floating in the water. Armed with brains Cephalopods — the group that includes octopuses and squids — have long fascinated neuroscientists because their brains and sensory systems are unlike those found in any other animals. Octopuses, for instance, have more neurons in their arms than in their central brain: a structure that allows each arm to function independently as if it has its own brain3. And researchers have long known that the hundreds of suckers on each arm can both feel the environment and taste it4. Molecular biologist Nicholas Bellono at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and his group were studying the California two-spot octopus (Octopus bimaculoides) when they came across a distinctive structure on the surface of the animal’s tentacle cells. Bellono suspected that this structure acted as a receptor for chemicals in the octopus’s environment. He contacted neurobiologist Ryan Hibbs at the University of California San Diego, who studies receptors that are architecturally similar to the octopus structures found by Bellono’s team: both types consist of five barrel-like proteins clustered to form a hollow tube. When the researchers looked at the octopus genome, they found 26 genes for these barrel-shaped proteins, which could be shuffled to create millions of distinct five-part combinations that detect various tastes1. The researchers found that the octopus receptors tend to bind to ‘greasy’ molecules that don’t dissolve in water, suggesting that they are optimized for detecting chemicals on surfaces such as a fish’s skin, the sea floor or the octopus’s own eggs. © 2023 Springer Nature Limited

Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 28741 - Posted: 04.15.2023