Lungs Can Taste! Weird Discovery Points to New Asthma Treatments

By Andrew Moseman | October 25, 2010 10:53 am

LungYour lungs know a bitter sensation when they taste one.

Yes, taste. In a Nature Medicine study, Stephen B. Liggett and company found receptors on the smooth muscle in the lungs that respond to bitterness, similar to the bitter taste buds on the tongue. And, Liggett found, the receptors’ reaction to bitterness is to relax the muscles, and therefore to expand airways. That was totally unexpected, he says, and opens intriguing possibilities for pulmonary treatment—for example, asthmatic symptoms could be treated by exposing these receptors to bitter compounds.

Like tastebuds on the tongue, the receptors react to bitterness, but unlike tastebuds they do not send any signals to the brain. The researchers thought the taste receptors might have evolved as a protection against toxic plants [Boston Globe]

The researchers first thought that bitter compounds might trigger a constriction of the airways, to prevent toxins from further infiltrating the lungs. The fact that Liggett saw the opposite, airways opening up, suggests that this feature evolved to help us fight off infections like bronchitis or pneumonia, where it would be beneficial to relax the airway so a person could cough up noxious fluids from the lungs.

Liggett’s team had been looking for new means to relax and open up a person’s airway, beyond the standard beta 2 agonist inhalant for asthma patients, when they stumbled upon this. Previous research had found bitter receptors on cilia—hair-like structures—in the same area. But this team found them on smooth muscles and experimented to see if they could activate the receptors.

When the researchers tried bitter aerosols on constricted airways in mice or on sections of human airways freshly removed from cancer patients, they were surprised to discover the lung muscles quickly relaxed. In seconds, the airways expanded to 90% of their original volume — three times as much as they did with the beta 2 agonist inhalant. [Los Angeles Times]

The team’s discovery doesn’t point to a cure for asthma. But on the plus side, Liggett notes that there are lots of agents available that could produce the bitter sensation needed to trigger these receptors.

There are thousands of compounds known to have a bitter taste, such as quinine and many drugs, he said. Researchers can begin testing them to determine which have the best results, with few or no side effects. [AP]

Related Content:
DISCOVER: The Biology of Bitterness
80beats: Study: C-Section Babies Miss Out on a Dose of Beneficial Bacteria
80beats: Ulcer- and Cancer-Causing Bacteria Also Protects Against Asthma
80beats: How to Build a Working Rat Lung in a Lab
Discoblog: From the Case Files: The Peanut Butter Cookie and the Lungs of Doom

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
MORE ABOUT: asthma, lungs, senses, taste
  • Georg

    I remember
    that long ago one could buy “asthma cigars” in German
    As far as I know, this cigars were made of/contained
    Datura stramonium, (Atropin and related drugs)

  • David

    Georg, that makes sense.

    Atropine is a drug called an anticholinergic, and basically blocks receptors involved in the parasympathetic nervous system and helps inhibit bronchoconstriction. A related drug, ipratropium (or Atrovent) is used in the management of asthma and COPD.

    Atropine is poisonous in high doses, and the name atropine is derived from the name of the Fate, Atropos. People took deadly nightshade, where atropine can be found, as a means to commit suicide.

  • Aardey

    evolved, no chance that might be part of the basic design?

  • Me

    Yes evolved. If you choose to wear blinders when you read, maybe sites focused on honest research and inquiry are not suitable for you. Stick to your bible and stay ignorant. We scientists are content with making all the goods and services you freely take for granted, despite your unproductive blind theological and dogmatic mind. Just remember the last time religion was in charge we called the period “the dark ages. “

  • Richard Friedel

    Another relevant but strangely ignored or not generally known fact about asthma is that the change between weak (asthmatic) and strong (healthy) breathing is dependent on abdominal muscle tension. Slackening the muscles here causes abysmally weak and asthmatic breathing. Training the muscles, for example by “abdominal hollowing” ( see Web articles) produces an antiasthmatic effect. Abdominal muscle tension plays a prominent part in Asiatic martial arts. I tend to breathe asthmatically after an evening meal. Breathing powerfully into my lower abdomen with tensed muscles provides an effective cure for me. But then I’ve always been sceptical about medical wisdom on asthma. Respectively, Richard Friedel

  • Roland

    Thank you, Richard. I have copd and was aware that my stomach muscles had a role in how easy I could breath. I had told my doc about my stomach problems and for some reason he had no idea of what was the problem. Abdominal hollowing, heh? I’ll check it out.

  • Anon

    @Me: He was asking a genuine question. He did not say that creationism was the answer, he was just pointing out another possible cause. He did not say the science was wrong, nor did he insult people that believe in envolution. What you did was rather rude, and by saying such things you have revealed that you are exactly what you accused him of being.
    Just from the other point of view.

    About this. Why do they have to use drugs? Wouldn’t it be better to use something more organic. Like lime extract or something? Something natural that we’ve evolved around?

  • Neal

    This gives me comfort (as a mild asthmatic) to know that we are making scientific progress towards finding a cure, I know the article’s contents aren’t a step towards it, but it is still progress and it brings me a sense of calm knowing we are making stride. Thank you for all the work those who were involved with this discovery.

  • Gerald

    I agree with Anon, that was incredibly rude and uncalled for.
    I’m not at all a believer in creationism, but it doesn’t mean i have to insult those that are by default.

    I’d like to know if anything more has come of this? Because it’s a really interesting discovery that could help so many people!

  • Cullen

    I have cured my own asthma through proper breathing and have written a book titled “How To Cure Asthma Naturally” available online. It is for anybody suffering from asthma that wants to learn a proven and guaranteed way to eliminate it or in the very least dramatically improve it. I offer a 60 day full money back guarantee authorized by a third party “Clickbank” the largest digital marketplace in the world.

  • Frances

    This is incredibly fascinating! I suffered from mild asthma as a child and I can not wait to see how this newfound research will pan out. I do agree with Anon. Shouldn’t there be organic substitutes that will accomplish the same goals as the medication? After all, this bodily reaction is induced from contact with “bitter” organic substances like poisonous plants anyways.

    By the way, I really do not appreciate your hatred for creationists or intelligent design sympathizers, Me. There is absolutely nothing to be attained by you bashing someone that thinks differently than you. Not only that, but believing theory of intelligent design does not make you incapable of understanding science and fact (some of the greatest biologists/physicists in history believed in intelligent design. ex. Gregor Mendel and Albert Einstein) . I do understand that some creationists are close minded and ignorant to the ways of science but please, be more understanding.

  • Peg

    Evolutionary science IS science: the process of asking questions. Creationism is not: it’s the process of accepting the lack of answers. As such, creationists clearly do NOT accept science on its very basic level. Evolutionusm is open and progressive; creationism is closed and static. Creationist ideas are NOT scientific, and don’t belong on a science board as valid discussion. While creationists may understand the “basic science,” (facts discovered by scientists asking questions) they do not accept science’s basic premise that everything is questionable. Therefore, on a very basic level they do not understand science. Accepting that at the present moment some things are unknowable (as Einstein did) does not mean that the final answer is God. It means we have something else to explore. An open system, as opposed to a closed one. Two different realities. Scientists understand God the way Creationists understand Science. Two different things.

  • http://gogc671009 marycarmen

    please i need all the page in spanish, you have very important information about the asthma but i cant undestand the english language

  • regis57

    ” The researchers thought the taste receptors MIGHT HAVE EVOLVED as a protection against toxic plants.”

    Though I throughly believe in evolution, I must defend Aardey byi saying that they scientists said it might have evolved. In other words, they don’t know, and Aardey never said she was a creationist. He/she simply stated that it was possible that our lungs were always like this.

  • Paul

    Personally – i believe that natural substances can cure these problems combined with positive thinking.

  • adbaz

    Supporting Aardy and anon. Many things are already in place until science tries to prove or understand it. It’s not a religion and it’s not a criticism of science, just a common sense approach. It’s good that science asks questions but it often goes further and dismisses anything it can’t control. If someone who is suffering finds something that works for them – if it can’t be scientifically proved that doesn’t mean it isn’t working. Just means science hasn’t discovered why yet.
    Way to go Paul. Maybe that’s what some of the more reactionary scientists are frightened and defensive of!

  • asfasf

    understand it. It’s not a religion and it’s not a criticism of science, just a common sense approach. It’s good that science asks questions but it often goes further and dismisses anything it can’t control. If someone who is suffering finds something that works for them – if it can’t be scientifically proved that doesn’t mean it isn’t working


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