Science & Food

To Eat With Your Eyes

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(photocredit: Zazzle)

Interacting with food is an incredibly sensual experience. One might imagine the smell of an oven roast, or picture an oozing chocolate lava cake, maybe even hear the crunch of a stale baguette. But what happens when you lose your sense of smell and taste to go along with it?

Anosmia is a disorder where one loses their ability to smell. There are various forms of this unfortunate disorder: Congenital anosmia is when someone is unable to smell at birth, and hyposmia describes the diminishing sense of smell that develops over time. Our senses of smell and taste are interdependent, so if you lose one of these senses, you lose the other one too.

Olfaction

(photocredit: Monell Center)

In understanding anosmia, it is critical to first grasp the science of smell. Whenever we breathe air, particles pass through our nose and bind to the olfactory receptors beneath the cribriform plate. The “nerve cells come into direct contact with the air we breathe,” [1] connecting the nose with the brain through the cribriform plate, a structure that resembles a honeycomb. This cribriform plate is crucial to our sense of smell, and any harm done to the plate can in turn damage the neurons that pass through it [3]. Some of the individuals who develop anosmia or hyposmia are either subject to injuries of the head, nasal polyps, inhaling toxic chemicals, or an upper respiratory infection (URI)–such as a cold– that damaged the receptor neurons. Swelling of the nasal tissue as a result of inflammation may “stretch the receptor cells and damage their ability to function properly” [3]. This is one potential factor, but further research is being conducted to understand more about the causes of anosmia.

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Figure 2: Anatomical representation of the olfactory system demonstrating the placement of the cribriform plate and the olfactory nerve passing through. (Photocredit: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins)

As expressed by Nisha Pradhan, a college student who developed anosmia, her inability to smell is perhaps even affecting her memory, as she cannot recall certain scents from her past [2]. While memories engage with all senses, though primarily with sight, we underestimate the role that smell has in providing a context for us to categorize our everyday life experiences; most importantly though its relevance personal health. Not being able to smell freshly baked cookies is unfortunate, but the inability to detect rotting milk or smoke from a nearby fire is dangerous. While in some cases anosmia can worsen, it is not always a permanent condition and can subside with time as nasal congestion or other issues subside. Scientists are currently conducting research to develop potential treatments for anosmia. The Monell Center—which focuses specifically on research relating to taste and smell– is testing to see if olfactory stem cells can be used to synthesize new olfactory neurons. Olfactory receptor cells have the ability “to regenerate from specialized stem cells across a persons lifetime.” These stem cells would be derived from healthy individuals and then be transplanted into the patient [3].

Though it may slip the crevices of one’s mind, the nose is a vulnerable organ essential in constructing our everyday perceptions of life around us. It allows us to retrace memories, map the physical world around us, and most importantly preserve well-being. Heightening our gastronomic experiences, our ability to smell and taste food is a gateway to more meaningful sensory, social phenomena and life without them could only become incredibly bland.

References Cited:

  1. “What is Anosmia?” http://www.webmd.com/brain/anosmia-loss-of-smell#2-6
  2. Heist, Annette. “With no Sense of Smell, The World Can Be a Grayer, Scarier Place.” http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/10/10/496455192/with-no-sense-of-smell-the-world-can-be-a-grayer-scarier-place
  3. “Causes of Anosmia.” Monell Center. https://www.monell.org/research/anosmia/anosmia_causes
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